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Public School Supporters Seek to Shape New York City Education Policy

Earlier this month, a beat-up school bus from Wassaic, N.Y., rolled into Queens Village, and a team of public school students, parents and members of advocacy groups descended upon it. They covered its sun-washed green paint with sky blue, ripped out its seats and any traces of its former life — which at one point included transporting a 30-piece marching band and dance ensemble to play at demonstrations and other social- justice activities.

In its new incarnation, the bus will carry the message of a coalition of public school supporters called A+ NYC to New York City’s mayoral candidates, in hope of shaping their positions on the future of the nation’s largest public school system. A+ began its efforts last week by taking the bus on a weeklong tour that zigzagged across the boroughs, stopping at schools, offices of participating advocacy groups, and spots like the Brooklyn Public Library and the Staten Island Ferry terminal.

Visitors to the bus could express support for proposed changes they would like to see in public schools and add their own suggestions. Their responses will be tabulated to create a platform, which a sister group, New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, which includes the United Federation of Teachers, will communicate to candidates and voters.

Poetic as a message-bearing school bus might be, its trip was not an easy one. Never mind navigating New York City traffic during rush hours in a bus whose turn signals did not work and whose 200,478 miles rattled the engine with every acceleration. Forget about the time the bus broke down on the way to Brownsville, Brooklyn. Mobilizing parent voters may be even more complicated than the trip was. Parents are not usually courted as a voter bloc. It is hard to say how many of them are registered to vote, let alone how many actually show up at the polls.

Prime New York, a company that keeps voter data and statistics, does not have such information, its co-founder Jerry Skurnik said. Exit polls typically do not ask whether voters have school-age children, John Mollenkopf, the director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York, said.

About 15 percent of the roughly 4 million people who are old enough to vote have school-age children, but how many of them are registered voters is not known, Mr. Mollenkopf said. And they are such a diverse group, whose attentions stretch over so many issues, that they have historically been hard to mobilize.

It’s not the size of the group, Bob Liff, a political consultant, explained. “It’s whether you can get them motivated. That’s what the issue is. The jury is always out on it.”

Still, A+ NYC leaders said they felt that this election, with the Bloomberg administration coming to an end, may be different. “I think that what we’ve demonstrated is there is real energy and a broad energy around the possibility to line up on education,” said Oona Chatterjee, an associate director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, a nonprofit educational research and policy group that helped organize A+ NYC.

The coalition is made up of more than 40 activist groups based in areas as disparate as the South Bronx and brownstone Brooklyn, whose concerns range from opposing high-stakes tests that determine student advancement and schools’ performance to advising young mothers.

In sessions held over the last few months, those participants described their ideal school system. Their comments became a wish list of 27 points directed at students, school leaders and staff members, the schools chancellor and other leaders of the school system and the mayor.

Because of A+ NYC’s tax status as a charitable organization, its work is limited to collecting responses, providing candidates with policy papers and formulating a platform. New Yorkers for Great Public Schools will register voters and push the platform, though both groups are prohibited from endorsing a candidate, Zakiyah Ansari, a spokeswoman for New Yorkers for Great Public Schools, said.

A+ is not the only group trying to harness parent voters. A group called Students First has a New York chapter that is building a base of parents in low-income communities with underperforming schools, according to an organizer, Tenicka Boyd. It was founded by Michelle Rhee, the former Washington schools chancellor, and has earned a reputation among groups seeking to change the school system as being an anti-teachers-union, pro-charter-school group, but Ms. Boyd said the description oversimplified its stand. At the other end of the spectrum is NYC Kids PAC, whose platform includes eliminating high-stakes testing and reducing class sizes. “I understand that these candidates have to address more concerns than education issues,” said Tesa Wilson, the president of District 14’s Community Education Council, who is on the group’s board. “I have a horse in this game. My daughter is in public school and I get so passionate about it. ”

ON THE MORNING of March 13, the bus, with its blue ceiling painted with puffy clouds and its inside walls coated in chalkboard paint, rolled up to a spot near City Hall in downtown Manhattan, where four mayoral candidates — Bill de Blasio, the public advocate; John C. Liu, the city comptroller; Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker; and William C. Thompson Jr., the former comptroller and Board of Education president, made speeches to begin its tour.

Only some of the candidates boarded the bus to read the platform, which was displayed on signs mounted inside and which had a certain who-could-be-against-that? quality to its demands. It called upon school leaders and staff, for example, to “deliver a well-rounded, challenging, college-ready curriculum that is tailored to its students’ needs and interests.”

“With 27 principles and concerns, that covers a lot of ground,” Mr. Liu said.

Mr. Thompson said that the issues raised were broad, but that the platform would be useful. “I think what it does is it creates the outline and then from that you can create more specific conversations,” he said.

Ms. Boyd of Students First New York dismissed the bus trip. “A lot of what they’re doing is political theater, rallying parents around issues that are nuanced and complicated with not a lot of explanation, and then going forward saying, ‘Look, these are parents’ issues,’ ” she said.

And even members of A+’s larger coalition expressed doubts about its ability to influence the mayoral election. “I think the jury is still out,” said Martha Foote, of Parents Voices New York, a group opposed to high-stakes testing, which joined A+ NYC.

“There is so much wiggle room in terms of what their specifics will be or not be,” she said, adding that they would have to keep pushing candidates.

Still, Mr. de Blasio, who is quick to point out that his son is a public school student, said in a phone interview after the A+ event that he thought the public school parent bloc could be significant in the primary.

“I think parents are disenchanted, and for the first time since mayoral control there is an opportunity for a reset,” he said. “I think you’re going to see an intense energy, you’re going to see parents voting.”

A little after noon, the bus lurched and lumbered away from City Hall, traveling to Union Square and then to Public School 132 in Washington Heights. By the end of its tour, it had made more than 20 stops, with 1,828 people (nearly 72 percent of them parents or students), the largest number of them (652) from Brooklyn, expressing opinions on platform issues.

The most popular points for voters were reducing the emphasis on standardized testing, fighting for more funds and integrating arts into the school day. One sentiment was repeated by children and adults in many neighborhoods: School is no longer any fun.

When the bus stopped at Mott Hall High School in Harlem on the third day of the tour, Jay Pimentel, a senior, recalled that a class taken by other students who had failed the Regents exam in United States history and government had no regular teacher for months. Once, he said, a dance teacher taught the class.

“When it comes to my school, I don’t want to say it’s my school’s fault as much as I blame the education system, because my school is limited in what it can and cannot do,” said Mr. Pimentel, who will attend Columbia College in Chicago in the fall. “I knew a lot of stuff I was being taught because I learned it in middle school and I was still doing it in 11th grade. That’s not how it’s supposed to be working out.”

In the South Bronx the next day, Rena Suazo was out with her 6-year-old son when they spotted the bus. He attends P.S. 134, which received a C rating overall from the Education Department and a D in school environment. She was worried about those grades. “If you’re a part of that school, that reflects on you,” she said.

Over in the Fordham section of the Bronx that same day, Shelley Matthews said she was worried about school financing and the emphasis on testing. “They need more than the exam,” she said. “They need art and music and everything is being taken away. The kids aren’t going in excited to learn.”

In Park Slope, Brooklyn, on the last day of the tour, last Tuesday, other parents echoed those concerns. “I want my kids to have a well-rounded education, and a lack of funds makes that challenging,” Emma Murphy said as her 6- and 9-year-old children dropped their tickets into ballot boxes on the bus and climbed over the wheel well.

Another parent, Katrina Elliot, said she was worried about the next standardized exams. “You can feel the kids’ anxiety about the tests,” she said. Outside, a couple of parents held signs protesting the emphasis on standardized testing. Two children joined in, one carrying a sign reading “no homework” and the other a sign that said, “All work and no play makes Josh a dull boy.”

When a parent said the bus had to leave and the children had to get to class, they groaned, “Do we have to?” Eventually, they trudged into school. And the blue bus rattled off toward Staten Island to wrap up its tour.

Originally posted at the New York Times

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