rally time

Protesters rally against closures on mayor's street, if not his stoop

Parents, students and teachers protest against school closures and the expansion of charter schools across the street from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Upper East Side townhouse (center house).
Parents, students and teachers protest against school closures and the expansion of charter schools across the street from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Upper East Side townhouse (center house).

The pavement outside of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Upper East Side townhouse became a battleground in two fights this afternoon — one against school closures and another for the right to protest against them on a public sidewalk.

A group of parents, students and teachers sued in federal court last week for the right to demonstrate on both sides of the street outside of Bloomberg’s home. They said their protests at Tweed Courthouse — home to the Department of Education — had fallen on deaf ears.

On Friday, the protesters won their case. But the city appealed, and this morning a panel of circuit court judges overturned the first decision, ruling that the demonstrators had to stay on the south side of East 79th Street, across the street from the mayor’s door.

And so protesters, who had vowed to demonstrate regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome of their lawsuit, took their chants of “Phase out Bloomberg” to just the south side.

“The north side becomes a ‘no First Amendment’ zone,” said the civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, who argued the case for letting protesters gather directly in front of the mayor’s residence. “What are they afraid of? Are they afraid of criticism?”

“It’s not for the government to choose where the protest is,” Siegel added.

Police allowed about 150 protesters onto the mayor’s block at a time, and the remaining demonstrators circled in a staging area at the corner of  79th Street and Central Park. At its height, roughly 300 protesters gathered on the block and in the staging area.

City attorneys argued that security concerns on the sidewalk directly in front of Bloomberg’s townhouse justified the city in keeping protesters across the street.

Siegel said it would be up to the plaintiffs in the suit, two students at Maxwell High School and a parent and teacher at Brooklyn’s P.S. 15, to decide whether to appeal the court’s ruling. To appeal, the plaintiffs would have to organize a second protest.

“From my perspective, I would absolutely like to,” said Julie Cavanagh, the P.S. 15 teacher who was one of the plaintiffs. “This is metaphorical for a lot of things in this city. This is a mayor who thinks a public street is his private street.”

Many demonstrators came to oppose the expansion of the city’s charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated. A large contingent of parents and teachers came from Cavanagh’s school, P.S. 15, to protest a city plan to allow a charter school expand in their school building over the next five years.

Protesters gathered across the street from the mayor's home and on the corner across from Central Park to oppose the city's plan to shutter 20 schools.
Protesters gathered across the street from the mayor's home and a block away in Central Park to oppose the city's plan to shutter 20 schools.

Most protesters came to oppose the city’s plan to shutter 20 schools. Groups of teachers, students and parents traveled to the Upper East Side from Columbus High School in the Bronx, Maxwell High School in Brooklyn and Queens’ Jamaica High School, among several others, to protest plans to close those schools.

“They didn’t even try to fix the school,” said Lashaune Gordon, 16, a sophomore at Maxwell.

“Is closing the school making anything better?” asked Gordon’s friend Devante Kendall, also a 16-year-old sophomore. “Everybody at our school, we’re doing better now. I think they should wait to see what happens.”

The students’ math teacher, Ed Ludde, accused the DOE of setting the school up to fail when the school received an influx of high-needs students after the city shuttered nearby Jefferson High School. “They designed a system that would implode upon itself,” he said.

The students said they were skeptical that the city’s plan to phase in a new school on Maxwell’s campus as theirs phased out would go smoothly. And they said that the gradual phase-out of their own school would hurt morale. “If there are no 9th graders next year, there will be no 9th grade girls to talk to,” joked Kendall.

More seriously, they said plans for the school’s closure put a damper on their ambitions to share their future successes with their alma mater.

“We would like to come back 20 years from now, when we’re rich,” Gordon said.

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.