April 18, 2013
A confrontation between Bedford-Stuyvesant educators and StudentsFirstNY organizers on Wednesday highlighted the group’s struggle to organize parents in low-performing schools.
To protest the poor quality of public schools in Bed-Stuy, StudentsFirstNY staged a march that culminated at the building that P.S. 305 and Satellite East Middle School share. Staff members from the schools butted heads with the protesters on the sidewalk outside the building.
“We’re trying to get the kids a better education,” said Carmen Pinto, an organizer with the group, the local affiliate of Michelle Rhee’s national advocacy organization.
“How do you know they’re not getting one?” a staff member replied. “They don’t have anyone in the building to say that.”
It was a version of a criticism that has been leveled at StudentsFirstNY before, and on Wednesday, it turned out to be true. Of the several dozen people who eventually joined Pinto, none actually had children who attended either school in the building. In fact, attendees who told GothamSchools that they had children in the school system said they were happy with the quality of education they were getting.
After the rally, a spokeswoman from the public relations firm working with StudentsFirstNY said that they had expected a better turnout and that some parents who planned to attend could not make it. Today, organizers said that parents represented a larger share of the protest’s participants. Of the 71 people who attended the rally, Tenicka Boyd, the group’s director of organizing, said 26 were members of the Bedford-Stuyvesant chapter.
Initially, StudentsFirstNY made a splashy entrance onto New York’s education advocacy scene with a pledge to stir up the mayoral election by pressing candidates to focus on education. Led by Executive Director Micah Lasher, a seasoned and well-connected legislative aide to Mayor Bloomberg, the group also stayed politically active in Albany, contributing more than $100,000 to candidates over six months in 2012.
Lasher departed this month, leading many allies to wonder privately what his exit means for the organization’s future.
The group made parent organizing an important part of its advocacy as well, with the hope that tapping into frustration felt by parents who have access to few quality school options where they live could lead the parents to support StudentsFirstNY’s policy agenda. That agenda includes tying teacher evaluations to student test scores and expanding high-quality school choices for families, a process that in New York City has been fueled by the closure of more than 100 low-performing schools.
The group initially opened five chapters in low-income neighborhoods and has since opened nine more chapters. The group counts more than 1,500 citywide members, a spokeswoman said.
But Wednesday’s turnout signaled that getting a new message about education to resonate with parents had been a challenge. Darlene Boston, StudentsFirstNY’s chapter leader in Bedford-Stuyvesant, said some parents have grown accustomed to their local schools’ poor performance.
“If you have been around mediocrity all the time, it’s hard to understand how bad the situation is,” Boston said.
The march began on Fulton Street and ended about a mile away at P.S. 305 and Satellite East Middle School, where test scores are low and enrollment has been declining. Boyd said the group targeted the schools because their low test scores represented the quality of schools in Bedford-Stuyvesant
“We marched there because they are the lowest-performing schools in the district,” said Boyd. “This is a district-wide issue.”
Two parents with children in charter schools said they attended because they had benefited from access to school choice and shared the group’s mission on education.
“The school where my child is going to is doing well, so I’m just here for the cause,” said Dorian Muller, a parent at Community Roots Charter School.
But the educators at the school told the protesters that they were misdirecting their criticism.
“You know where the real fight needs to be? 52 Chambers Street,” said an assistant principal, referring to the Tweed Courthouse — the home of the city Department of Education’s central headquarters.