parent disengagement

An outspoken parent quits a Queens district council in disgust

Charging that elected parent councils are “window dressing” that allow the city to avoid listening to families, a member of one of them quit publicly last night.

Brian Rafferty, a member of the Community Education Council for District 24, announced his resignation at the council’s meeting by reading a letter of protest he had written to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

“The Community Education Council serves no purpose other than to be a shield between the Department of Education and the parents of schoolchildren citywide,” Rafferty wrote in the letter, which he also posted on Facebook.

Rafferty echoed complaints that parents around the city have sounded for years about the weak role of the councils, which are seen as one of the few venues for parents to voice opinions about DOE policies, even though their only statutory function is to redraw school zone lines. Over the summer, after a disastrous set of council elections that had to be conducted twice, Walcott replaced the head of the DOE’s family engagement office.

But Rafferty suggested that little has changed since then. He said council members did not receive maps of new school zones until just before a recent public meeting about them, so members could not respond to parents’ criticism.

“We were as blindsided as the parents, and our job, as whipping boys for the DOE, was to take the brunt of the parents’ lashes without any regard to our own opinions on this,” Rafferty said.

“We are the volunteer appointed go-betweens who waste our time swallowing the vitriol and scorn of angry parents so the DOE doesn’t have to taste it. We bear the punches of the angry parents so that the DOE doesn’t have to feel the frustration,” he said.

This is not the first time Rafferty has made the news. Last year, Rafferty, who is also executive editor of the Queens Tribune, said the New York Post fabricated a column under his name advocating for the public release of teachers’ ratings.

Rafferty’s full letter of resignation is below.

September 27, 2011

To Chancellor Dennis Walcott:

The Community Education Council serves no purpose other than to be a shield between the Department of Education and the parents of schoolchildren citywide.

I would feel better about the work we do if I considered us to be an annoyance – that would mean that we’ve gotten under somebody’s skin and we have to be dealt with.

The reality is quite the opposite. The Dept. of Education does what it wants to do, when it wants to do it and to whomever it feels like. It does not care about the parents – and why should it? It views the parents as unnecessary in the process.

And let me be clear, I’m not talking about those who are here tonight, any other CEC night, at parent-teacher conferences, asking kids about their homework, making sure they put their studies first and involved in their children’s lives. No, I’m talking about the great majority of parents that have neither the time, interest, desire or understanding to do what they need to in order for their children to succeed. That is the great silent majority – the people who don’t care enough to try their best.

The Dept. of Education uses the human shield of the Community Education Council to deflect the anger, resentment, scorn, lack of information, frustration – and good ideas – of the vocal minority. The DOE doesn’t care about the angry rabble, about the people who know they are right and want to work from within the system to make a change.

That’s us. The few of us on the board who were selected to be the shield, and those of you sitting in the audience tonight and on other nights who hurl arrows at the DOE, at the Mayor, at Portfolio, at zoning rules, at the Chancellor.

Do they hear your complaints? For the most part – no. And why? Because WE sit here. Because we are the volunteer appointed go-betweens who waste our time swallowing the vitriol and scorn of angry parents so the DOE doesn’t have to taste it. We bear the punches of the angry parents so that the DOE doesn’t have to feel the frustration. We hear the cries of parents whose children languishing in overcrowded schools do not have the opportunity to use a bathroom – so that the DOE can sleep soundly.

We are the middleman that doesn’t deliver, the punching bag that can’t fight back.

A perfect example of this is the two recent zoning meetings we have had. These are often well-attended, with parents that have very clear positions on what should or should not be included in new zoning. At both of these meetings the parents were there to protest, but we – the board – didn’t have the zoning map until the meetings. We were as blindsided as the parents, and our job, as whipping boys for the DOE, was to take the brunt of the parents’ lashes without any regard to our own opinions on this. We didn’t have the chance to turn the maps back to the DOE and say change it. I did not attend those meetings because I can no longer bear the frustration, the anger, the resentment and scorn. I’d have no problem with it if the DOE said, “Hey, we’ve got your back. Don’t worry, we’ll solve those problems.”

In some cases the problems seem too big for the DOE to handle; in others the DOE has its own agenda. In still more, the DOE couldn’t give a damn.

Some of my colleagues on this board may disagree with me. That is their prerogative. Some of the parents in the audience, the teachers, administrators and others may also not see things the way I do. That’s fine – we don’t all have to always be on the same page.

The simple truth here, as far as I see it, is that my function – and that of any CEC – is that of window dressing. There have been the rare instances when we have affected change, but the losses column towers high over the gains.

Additionally, I was initially inspired to resign this position in protest to the flawed election process that transpired in the spring, where people who earned votes were removed from ballots due to the flawed rules adopted by our legislature.

In neighboring District 28, the 4th and 5th highest vote-getters in a district that only initially selected 7 were not seated on the board pursuant to Chancellors regulations, which state that when not enough people are selected, ALL those who received no votes get voted on again. The people who received votes in the initial round were denied seats on the board while the people with fewer – or no – initial votes ended up placed on the board. The rule allows for eliminating certain candidates, but only if there aren’t nine members selected. District 28 only has eight.

That is a perfect example of the how absurd the law is and how inconsequential we all are. If the DOE doesn’t want you on the board, they won’t have you.

It is because of all of these reasons that as of tonight, I am resigning my position with the Community District Education Council of District 24. I have enjoyed the company, I have relished the tasks and I have learned a great deal – but my fists are too bloodied from pounding them against the great immovable object that is the New York City Department of Education.

Though many have chastised Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Chancellors Joel Klein, Cathie Black and Dennis Walcott and various bureaucrats at the City level, my blame rests solely on the New York State Legislature and their spineless rubber stamping of a process that takes away local authority, discourages parental involvement and offers absolutely no oversight to ensure that the people in charge, in the middle or at the bottom are doing their job.

And despite all of this, the City’s children have made improvements in the last decade – depending who you ask. Clearly, their plan has worked, and they can keep doing what they have with or without you, me, or anybody else. If anything, that shows just how useless all of this is, how we are wasting our time and how – despite all symbolism and flair – my statement tonight will not matter.

File that next to nearly everything else we do on this board. I quit.

Brian M. Rafferty
Community Education Council, District 24

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.