First Person

First Person: How the shame of ‘free-free’ inspired my push for universal free lunch

PHOTO: Flickr / bookgrl

Advocates have urged the city for several years to make school lunch free for all students, arguing that the current system stigmatizes those who qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has piloted free-lunch-for-all in middle schools, but has so far declined to expand the program and has cited concerns that doing so would jeopardize its federal funding. The budget he released Tuesday did not include funding for universal free lunch.

In public school cafeterias across New York City, many students play a game of hide and seek, trying desperately to be invisible. Why? Because they want to avoid being bullied by their classmates for being poor enough to qualify for free lunch, which in our world is known as “free-free.”

My name is Aminata Abdouramane, and I am in the 12th grade at the Academy of Urban Planning at the Bushwick Campus in Brooklyn. I know this game all too well, as I was once that bullied student in the cafeteria.

As a new freshman, I experienced the humiliation of having other students announce that I was in line for the “free-free.” After a week of this nonstop bullying, I begged my parents to pack me lunch. On good days, I ate my lunch by myself, away from the cafeteria. But on bad days, when my mom didn’t have money or time, I had no other choice than to go to the cafeteria and eat the “free-free.”

Now, I usually bring lunch or eat with my friends, but I still witness others getting labeled and bullied every day for being part of the free school lunch program.

None of this would happen if universal free school lunch existed, just the way it does in public schools in other cities like Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Dallas, Baltimore and Philadelphia. With all the stress of school, the last thing we need to worry about is lunch — but we do.

Here’s why: The free and reduced-price lunch program creates a social class system that is reinforced daily by the school lunch line. Some students get lunch for free, some get it for a reduced price, and some pay the whole cost.

Imagine you’re on the lunch line and another student sees you getting free lunch and takes advantage of this. I’ve seen name-calling, put downs, bullying, labeling. I’ve witnessed a boy getting bullied over getting in line for “free-free.” The bully was yelling over the entire cafeteria, “You got free-free, yo!” Once this happens, you’re immediately an outcast. Everyone knows who you are — and in a very bad way.

Can you believe that school lunch causes this? What if people are hungry? What if that lunch is the one and only meal for their whole day? What if their parents don’t have money to provide them to buy lunch? Even some of my classmates who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunch still can’t afford the full price. They must choose between owing money their parents don’t have or not eating lunch. Then what?

It’s almost impossible to learn when you’re walking around hungry and feeling depressed and left out. I know this is not the intention of the Department of Education, but this is what happens in our cafeterias.

Nowhere else in public schools are students separated by income. Why should this happen in our cafeteria? Using anonymous cards or numbers can help, but it doesn’t erase the problem. Everyone knows if you’re getting on the lunch line and what that means. The best way to get rid of this system is to make lunch free for all students.

This is why I have been fighting for the last three years with other New York City students and the Lunch 4 Learning campaign to make school lunch free for all students in our public schools. There is nothing standing in the way. Middle schools have had universal free school lunch since 2014 and it has not negatively affected federal funding (also known as Title I). For schools like mine, where many families are low-income, this is great news. Federal funding is very important, but we also urgently need universal free school lunch.

Students should have all the resources and nourishment they need to reach their potential. As a graduating senior of 2016, I want to make sure that my years of fighting for universal free school lunch will banish the “free-free” stigma once and for all.

Our city’s leaders have the power to do this, and I urge them to take a stand for all New York City public school students.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.