Wednesday, August 14, 2013

NYC Families Gather to Demand More Educational Options

By Kevin P. Chavous

I had the opportunity to take part this weekend in StudentsFirstNY’s Parent Convention. The convention brought together hundreds of families and education choice activists from across New York City to discuss the best way to inspire policy changes that would lead to more quality educational options for New York children. 

The day began with the always energetic and inspiring Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harem Children’s Zone. Canada discussed how for years failure had been accepted in many of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. He talked about how real reform is necessary to help give these kids a way out of poverty. "We need to think outside of the box. Inside the box solutions have failed students for decades," said Canada.

Inspired by his words, we broke off and began the first set of workshops for the day. I was the moderator of a really moving discussion on why high performing charter schools matter.

This panel brought together parents-turned-charter school activists from Success Academy Genevieve Foster and Natasha Shannon; and parent choice advocates Sharhonda Bossier of Families for Excellent Schools and Valerie Babb of Charter Parent Action Network. 

From right to left: Valerie Babb, Genevieve Foster,
Natasha Shannon, Sharhonda Bossier and myself.
Shannon, a parent of three, said she had an eye-opening experience when she graduated from high school top of her class but needed remedial courses in college. She said she never realized her education was failing her, and knew when she was a parent she wouldn’t let the same thing happen to her children.  

Babb experienced the power of education choice first-hand when receiving her education. As a child she was zoned to attend one of the roughest schools in New York, one riddled by gang violence and drug abuse. She was able to attend an alternative high school and go to college, which lead her to dedicate her life to helping empower families to make the same options for their children.  

When discussing the benefits of charter schools, Bossier said, “Charters prove the possible. This kid who you said couldn’t learn can learn, and has learned. The benefit of charters is there are no more excuses for letting children fail. It says to other schools that they need to imitate what is working.” 

The academic gains many children and families see after enrolling in a choice school prove that educational choice works. With smaller class sizes and greater emphasis on one-on-one individualized learning, many charters and other choice schools are seeing academic gains as they are better equipped to identify where a student is struggling and provide them with the extra assistance necessary to get them up to grade level.     

I had the opportunity to participate as a panelist in the importance of phasing out failing schools workshop. Joined by StudentsFirstNY’s Raysa Rodriguez as moderator and StudentsFirst’s Josiah Young and TNTP’s Daniel Weisberg as co-panelists, we had a discussion about the turnaround model being implemented across the country. The Turnaround Model, which aims to replace failing schools with new schools, is not something unique under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Across the country, similar policies are being implemented alongside parent trigger laws.  

From right to left: Raysa Rodriguez, Daniel Weisberg,
Josiah Young and myself.

The results of the turnaround model have been mixed.

The Taft School in the Bronx, which served approximately 3,000-4,000 students, was plagued by a lot of gang activity and violence. The city decided to replace this one large school with eight more interactive schools. With less students and more focused environment, these schools have been better able to address students’ needs in a more intimate environment. 

Overwhelmingly, the panelists and audience agreed that no matter how we arrive at giving families choice, the people who benefit from the availability of educational options need to be kept abreast throughout the entire process. Families in the audience spoke out in support of this notion, asking for a seat at the table. 

As I said during the workshop, the best way for parents to stay informed is by making their voices heard. By organizing together, they must lead the leaders in creating the best policies for their child. 

I want to thank StudentsFirstNY for the opportunity to join them for a discussion on educational choice in the Big Apple. I look forward to continuing the conversation in my upcoming travels across the country!

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