After an intense, coordinated community effort, the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) voted on February 28th to keep PS/MS 42 Robert Vernam School in Arverne and MS 53 Brian Piccolo Middle School in Far Rockaway open. PEP spared the two Rockaway schools in a deadlock vote of 6-6-1 (with 1 abstaining) around 2 AM after listening to nearly eight hours of testimony by students, parents, teachers, elected officials, and other community stakeholders, who filled the auditorium at Murry Bergtraum High School in lower Manhattan to capacity. Throughout the meeting, the crowd demanded accountability from outgoing NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, chanting, “Where’s our Chancellor?” every time Fariña left the room and refusing to let the meeting proceed without her being present. PS/MS 42 and MS 53 will now remain open until at least the end of the 2018-2019 school year, during which time each school will go through a DOE-mandated restructuring process.
Fariña had originally announced the decision to close the two Rockaway schools in December 2017 after the New York City Department of Education claimed that they had failed to meet the required improvement metrics while under de Blasio’s Renewal School program. PEP pointed to leadership issues, high absentee rates, & low academic achievement scores as reasons for this original decision to close the “failing” schools. Immediately upon hearing Fariña’s announcement, parents, students, teachers, and community leaders began to mobilize and organize a campaign to save the two schools. They maintained that educational reforms such as those created under the Renewal School program typically take at least five years before their intended effects show statistically, but the school was only given three years to improve. In addition, both schools had in fact made significant improvements during that three-year period. MS 53 showed a 12 percent increase in ELA scores and an 82 percent college attendance projection, while PS/MS 42 showed a 10.5 percent increase in math and ELA scores, a score of 86 percent for rigorous instruction, and a 97.3 percent teacher attendance score.
There were many actions taken by community stakeholders leading up to the February 28th PEP vote that made saving PS/MS 42 and MS 53 possible, including a well-attended protest outside of the Tweed courthouse in lower Manhattan on February 21st. Protesters argued that the DOE’s decision to close or merge the schools was a violation of civil rights law that impacted schools which are primarily made up of students of color. Leaders in the campaign also accused the DOE of violating federal Title I law by failing to consult schools at the district level before deciding to close or merge the schools, among other violations. However, very few people are aware of this law or its mandates, nor are there currently any active structures to engage and inform parents around it. This lack of general knowledge about Title I law presents a huge obstacle in attempting to hold government officials accountable to following it.
In addition to the leadership and grassroots organizing of local parents and school staff, staying connected with local elected officials also played a big part in contributing to the campaign’s ultimate victory. By working very closely with parent leadership, local electeds gave parents the political clout they needed to push their campaign forward. Council Member Donovan Richards attended the PEP voting session of February 28th and chanted alongside community members to save their schools. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz stood by the community throughout the campaign. “The message is clear: We are not giving up on our kids,” said Katz. “The school communities are clearly vested in their success, as exemplified in both the recent progress in academic performance and the level of engagement by the parents, teachers and students to save their schools.” At the February 28th PEP voting session, Queens Borough President representative Deborah Dillingham proposed to remove the Rockaway schools from the list repeatedly until the motion was ultimately passed in the early hours of the morning. Local press coverage in The Wave, the Rockaway Times, and the Rockaway Advocate also contributed to the campaign’s success.
PS/MS 42 and MS 53 were the only two schools that PEP voted to spare out of the dozen or so Renewal schools that were originally slated for closure. All five Borough President representatives appointed to PEP voted as a block to save the two Rockaway schools as well as all other Renewal schools that the DOE had slated for closure. The mayor’s appointed PEP representative abstained from the vote on the two Rockaway schools, saying they deserved another chance considering all the damage they sustained during Hurricane Sandy, but voted in favor of closing all the other Renewal schools on the list. Communities where the other schools still slated for closure are located are continuing their fight to save those schools. Leaders in the campaign to save PS/MS 42 and MS 53 have reached out to parent leaders in those communities to support and assist them in filing an appeal challenging PEP’s decision to move forward with closing or merging their schools on the grounds that it is a civil rights violation under Title 1 law. Local advocate Queen Makkada expressed confidence that those communities will prevail as long as they remain united and determined in challenging what she contends was an illegal decision to close their schools in the first place, saying “We know the law, and if they follow their due diligence, they’re gonna be ok.”
Both Rockaway schools will be re-evaluated by the DOE regarding their Renewal status in June of 2019 after undergoing internal restructuring. PS/MS 42 Principal Patricia Finn seeks to bring transparency to the restructuring process by prioritizing community feedback and parent involvement. The PS/MS 42 administration and leadership are currently planning an event to both celebrate their victory in staying open and illicit feedback from community stakeholders on how the school should move forward. Though our schools are safe for now, we know there is more work to be done and that parents and the community must continue to come together and stay involved in securing and sustaining educational equity for Rockaway students.
Ultimately, it was the solidarity, persistence, and fierce determination of parents along with multiple community stakeholders that saved the two school’s from the DOE’s ax. At a press conference held by State Senator James Sanders’ office celebrating the victory, parent leader Kelvin Dyer remarked, “To keep 42 open is to dignify the work not only of parents, but of the staff and administration of this school.” Queen Makkada remarked on how the impact of this victory on the Rockaway community is even bigger than the win itself, saying, “moving forward in the celebration, you also have the empowerment that the parent leaders from 42 and 53 understand that they can have an impact, that they can make change.” In a community that faces many challenges, the Rockaway community must remember this victory as a lesson and a reminder of the power that we have when we come together, stand united, and fight to protect our community.