access denied

How often do New York City schools bar parents from entering? The city could soon be forced to say.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Councilman Ritchie Torres

The education department would be forced to disclose how often schools restrict parents from their campuses each year, under a bill that the New York City Council is considering.

The bill, which City Councilman Ritchie Torres introduced on Wednesday, would track a little-known practice that lawmakers say is ripe for abuse: the issuance of “limited-access letters.”

Those letters act like restraining orders and can restrict parents’ rights to enter their child’s school building. School officials can issue them when they feel that a parent poses a threat to the community.

But advocates worry the letters are used disproportionately in low-income communities, and they argue there are no clear guidelines or oversight that governs how they are handed out.

Education officials do not keep track of how often the letters are issued, nor could they produce an official policy that explains how school personnel should use them, despite multiple requests.

“You have parents who effectively have their access to a school restricted without any due process or judicial review,” Torres said. “The process of issuing limited access letters is shrouded in secrecy.”

The bill Torres introduced would require that the education department release annual reports that show how many limited access letters have been issued, as well as the demographics of families who receive them. The bill does not currently require the city to disclose how often individual schools bar parents from campus, though Torres said he planned to amend it to include that information.

The proposed law would also force the education department to publicly post its policies on limited access letters, including how parents can appeal them. (A department spokeswoman did not respond to questions about whether there is currently an appeals process.)

Stephanie Thompson, who is a member of the elected parent council for Manhattan’s District 1, told DNAinfo in 2016 that she has received limited access letters for complaining about a principal and criticizing a superintendent. “When you say stuff as a white man, you’re seen as expressing yourself,” she said. “You’re passionate. You’re smart and challenging. Whenever I do anything, I’m seen as an angry black woman and aggressive.”

Torres said he hopes the legislation will encourage school officials to limit the use of limited access letters. “I’m convinced that the DOE is going to be more parsimonious in the use of these letters under the light of public accountability,” he said.

In a statement, education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot said: “We have protocols in place to ensure we are providing safe learning environments for all students and staff, and this includes the issuance of limited access letters when necessary.”

She added that the letters “do not prohibit parents from accessing their child’s school” but that parents “must follow certain protocols and procedures that are outlined out in the letter.” She would not elaborate on exactly how the letters are used. The education department, Barbot added, is reviewing Torres’ bill.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.