Raising our voices against broken systems

Maria Bautista is the New York City campaign coordinator for the Alliance for Quality Education.

“A tale of two cities” is a term that Mayor de Blasio often used to describe my beloved city, New York, during his mayoral campaign. New York City is a vibrant, diverse city – a diamond in the rough. Underneath this beauty is a dark, not-so-well-hidden secret: there is racial and economic disparity that haunts us and threatens our well-being. It is no surprise, then, that at the heart of this broken system lays an educational system that is fragile and plagued by inequalities.

Growing up, education was held holy by my parents who, like many immigrants, had scarce opportunities in their countries of origin. My father and mother did not make it to high school, but they were determined that their children would be able to achieve their human potential through education. This story is not a rare one. While working for Councilmember Diana Reyna in 2011, I found this to be the story of many parents fighting against a school closure and co-location in Southside Williamsburg, a mostly low-income, Latino community. These stories and voices resonated so deeply; it was my story they told.

The Roberto Clemente School, a school with poor academic outcomes, was slated to be closed by the New York City Department of Education (DOE) that year. This school had a high number of English language learners and special needs students, almost 50 percent of the student body. At the time, the school had no full-time math teacher, no science teacher, no literacy coach, no librarian, no functional library, and large class sizes. This is also not a rare story. When the DOE proposed the plan to close the school, they didn’t plan for an intervention and were not ready to address the struggles of the students and families. They certainly didn’t listen to community concerns. Their plan was made behind closed doors with no input from the affected community, and it did not address the education failures of their own system.

Silence. Invisibility. Inequality. The Roberto Clemente School is now in its second year of phase out. It did not matter that hundreds of community members spoke out. It did not matter that the school had been set up for failure. It did not matter that children were in fact being left behind.

These dire years, however, were coming to a close. The 2013 mayoral race would play a significant role in rethinking many of the previous administration’s played-out reform policies, like school closures and co-locations; 2013 would be the year when “silent voices” would be elevated. In late 2012, I joined the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) to help coordinate efforts to affect the mayoral race – to make it an education election. AQE helped convene multiple stakeholders to establish a coalition, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools (NY-GPS). The NY-GPS focus: steering clear of Bloomberg’s failed educational policies and calling for leadership from the candidates to take us in a different direction, one that included the community as a partner.

The efforts of NY-GPS ran hand in hand with those of the A+ NYC coalition, which helped demystify many education reform policies through an online policy hub and worked with community groups to make recommendations to the new administration.

While A+ NYC solicited policy recommendations from the community through workshops and a citywide bus tour,* NY-GPS coordinated rallies in reaction to candidates’ positions on education issues, called for press conferences and reactions from candidates on issues like restorative justice and school accountability, and established a biweekly newsletter to keep people informed of the progress of the campaign and abreast of the candidates’ stances on education issues.

In January of 2013, three of the leading candidates, including Mayor-Elect de Blasio, called for a moratorium on school closures and co-locations, one of our campaign goals, as a result of direct organizing by AQE and coalition members. That was an “Aha!” moment for me. It spoke to the power of organizing to elevate community pressure and voices. So many times, communities came out and spoke out against these terrible policies, and they seemingly went to deaf ears. Unfortunately, there was a lot of damage done at the Roberto Clemente School and many schools throughout New York City. More than 160 schools were closed and countless co-located. However, in 2013, each time a student, parent, or staff member came out, protested, and lent their voice, someone was finally listening.

Theirs were the stories that elevated the truth of the “tale of two cities.” Theirs are the stories that helped shape the mayoral race and that humanized the faces of the “voiceless.” The outcome of the mayoral race will impact the educational lives of these students moving forward, and we cannot forget those who were left behind. It was and is our responsibility to continue to raise our voices and the voices of others to chip away at broken systems. It seems to hold true: when one door closes, another door opens. Here’s to a new story for the city that we all love so much. Here’s to real educational transformation.