mic check

Students prepping for protests get activism lesson from OWS

Occupy Wall Street activists Justin Wedes (right), and filmmaker Kevin Breslin (center) speak to a small group of students and staff at Paul Robeson High School, including English teacher Stefanie Siegel (left).

This week, the subject of Justin Wedes’s regular after school meeting with Paul Robeson High School seniors was part lesson on activism and social media, and part strategy session.

Meeting in the East Brooklyn school’s first-floor student lounge, which in the past year has served both as a place to unwind at the end of a long school day and a place to strategize ways to challenge the city’s school closure policy, Wedes detailed the plans to protest at the meeting where city officials will vote on which schools to close.

Wedes, who is a former city teacher, vocal opponent of school closures, and high-profile Occupy Wall Street organizer, is marshaling activists from within schools to join the Occupy movement in commandeering the evening PEP meeting, effectively prohibiting the agenda proceedings.

Wedes said he has spoken with students and teachers at a handful of city schools this winter in preparation for the event, including Herbert H. Lehman High School and Legacy High School for Integrated Studies.

On Thursday, the city’s Panel for Education Policy is scheduled to vote on half of this year’s controversial slate of school closures. In past years, protesters have delayed the evening vote until the early hours of the following morning. Wedes said the goal is to prohibit the vote from happening at all.

“We’re going to occupy it. We’re going to shut it down,” he said to the gathering of a half-dozen students and staff from Robeson. The PEP “won’t be able to vote.”

Under the banner of “Occupy the Department of Education,” an Occupy Wall Street spin-off, scores of educators, students and people unaffiliated with the public education system have used civil disobedience to derail or shut-down a number of public meetings where the chancellor and other education officials have appeared this school year. One meeting hosted under the auspices of the PEP, was cut short after droves of chanting protesters used the “people’s mic” to take over and staged a walk-out; but unlike tonight’s meeting, it was a special meeting on the Common Core standards with no formal agenda or voting period.

As a city teacher, Wedes made it his goal to inform students about political issues, and he became a leader in protests against school closures and chemicals in schools. But since resigning from teaching in 2010, he has devoted virtually all of his energy to activism, emerging as a spokesperson in the Occupy movement. Through it all, he has been meeting with students — most often at Robeson, but also at Lehman High School in the Bronx and elsewhere — to galvanize them to act against policies they feel marginalize them.

Wedes said the routine of past PEP meetings‘—where PEP members have never voted against an agenda item—demonstrates the need for a drastic change.

“We’ve been through this for years and years,” he said. “You can have hours of public comment, and every single parent and teacher and principal, every student and soon-to-be student who’s not even old enough to be in school can make the most heartfelt plea to these schools to keep their school open, and then at four in the morning, after 7 hours of public comment, motion to vote and then in 30 seconds all those schools are shuttered.”

Several Robeson students said they planned to attend tonight’s meeting to tell DOE officials about the detriments of rising class sizes, and how the phase-out policy has impacted their high school careers.

“I just hope that this whole thing stops, and it ends sooner rather than later,” said Ana Leguillou, a senior who has been active in past protests. “Everything fails, but you have to keep trying and trying in order to succeed. It may be too late for us but that doesn’t mean we should just stop altogether. If we can prevent other schools from meeting the same fate that we are going through…that’s what drives us to keep fighting against it.”

Wedes said the protesters will use a popular call-and-repeat speaking tactic, called a “mic check,” or a “people’s mic,” to drown out the Department of Education’s official microphone.

“Everybody will have a chance to speak, on the People’s mic—On our mic, not on theirs,” he said. “Even schools that aren’t slated for closure should come out ,and will come out.”

The thrum of OWS and the movement’s signature tactics have inflected many school protests this year. Last week, students at Samuel Gompers Career and Technical Education High School shouted “mic check!” several times before speaking at the school’s closure hearing. And several OWS activists taught students from Legacy High School for Integrated Studies, Lehman High School, and others how to use the “people’s mic” during a protest at Union Square.

Wedes has been meeting with Robeson students on an almost weekly-basis since 2010 he said, to talk about activism and plan student efforts to protest DOE measures, such as the decision to phase-out Robeson due to poor performance. Most recently, Wedes invited the filmmaker Kevin Breslin to campus, where they screened a documentary about OWS on a computer in the student lounge after school. Following the viewing, the group discussed issues of racism, class, police power, social media and nonviolence around OWS and other movements.


Newark Enrolls

After changes and challenges, Friday’s deadline to enroll in Newark schools finally arrives

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
A student fills out an information sheet at Central High School's booth at the citywide school fair in December.

Newark families have just a few hours left to apply to more than 70 public schools for next fall.

At noon on Friday, the online portal that allows families to apply to most traditional and charter school will close. After that, they will have to visit the district’s enrollment center. Last year, nearly 13,000 applications were submitted.

The stakes — and stress — are greatest for students entering high school. Each year, hundreds of eighth-graders compete for spots at the city’s selective “magnet” high schools, which many students consider their best options.

This year, those eighth-graders have to jump through an extra hoop — a new admissions test the magnets will use as they rank applicants. District students will sit for the test Friday, while students in charter and private schools will take it Saturday.

That’s news to many parents, including Marie Rosario, whose son, Tamir, is an eighth-grader at Park Elementary School in the North Ward.

“I don’t know nothing about it,” she said. District officials have been tight-lipped about what’s on the new test, how it will factor into admissions decisions, or even why introducing it was deemed necessary.

Students can apply to as many as eight schools. Tamir’s top choice was Science Park, one of the most sought-after magnet schools. Last year, just 29 percent of eighth-graders who ranked it first on their applications got seats.

“I’m going to cross my fingers,” Rosario said.

Students will find out in April where they were matched. Last year, 84 percent of families applying to kindergarten got their first choice. Applicants for ninth grade were less fortunate: Only 41 percent of them got their top choice, the result of so many students vying for magnet schools.

This is the sixth year that families have used the online application system, called Newark Enrolls, to pick schools. Newark is one of the few cities in the country to use a single application for most charter and district schools. Still, several charter schools do not participate in the system, nor do the vocational high schools run by Essex County.

Today, surveys show that most families who use the enrollment system like it. However, its rollout was marred by technical glitches and suspicions that it was designed to funnel students into charter schools, which educate about one in three Newark students. Some charter critics hoped the district’s newly empowered school board would abolish the system. Instead, Superintendent Roger León convinced the board to keep it for now, arguing it simplifies the application process for families.

Managing that process has posed challenges for León, who began as schools chief in July.

First, he ousted but did not replace the district’s enrollment chief. Then, he clashed with charter school leaders over changes to Newark Enrolls, leading them to accelerate planning for an alternative system, although that never materialized. Next, the district fell behind schedule in printing an enrollment guidebook for families.

Later, the district announced the new magnet-school admissions test but then had to delay its rollout as León’s team worked to create the test from scratch with help from principals, raising questions from testing experts about its validity. Magnet school leaders, like families, have said they are in the dark about how heavily the new test will be weighted compared to the other criteria, including grades and state test scores, that magnet schools already use to rank applicants.

Meanwhile, León has repeatedly dropped hints about new “academies” opening inside the district’s traditional high schools in the fall to help those schools compete with the magnets. However, the district has yet to hold any formal informational sessions for families about the academies or provide details about them on the district website or in the enrollment guidebook. As a result, any such academies are unlikely to give the traditional schools much of an enrollment boost this year.

District spokeswoman Tracy Munford did not respond to a request Thursday to speak with an official about this year’s enrollment process.

Beyond those hiccups, the enrollment process has mostly gone according to plan. After activating the application website in December, the district held a well-attended school fair where families picked up school pamphlets and chatted with representatives. Individual elementary schools, such as Oliver Street School in the East Ward, have also invited high school principals to come and tell students about their offerings.

American History High School Principal Jason Denard said he made several outings to pitch his magnet school to prospective students. He also invited middle-school groups to tour his school, and ordered glossy school postcards. Now, along with students and families across the city, all he can do is wait.

“I’m excited to see the results of our recruitment efforts,” he said. “Not much else is in my control — but recruitment is.”


Jubilation, and some confusion, as Denver schools begin their post-strike recovery

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Lupe Lopez-Montoya greets students at Columbian Elementary School on Thursday after Denver's three-day teacher strike.

Lupe Lopez-Montoya got the text message at 6:15 a.m. The strike was over, the colleague who’d been keeping her up to speed on news from her union told her.

And so as district and teachers union officials celebrated their deal at the Denver Public Library, Lopez-Montoya on Thursday resurrected her regular commute to Columbia Elementary School, the northwest Denver school where she’s the longest-serving tenured teacher.

For the past three days, Lopez-Montoya had stayed out of school as Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association sparred over how teachers in Denver are paid. She still had unanswered questions about the future. But first, it was time to greet students.

One girl ran across the sidewalk to give a hug. “Ms. Montoya’s back,” she shouted, burying her face in the teacher’s side.

Lopez-Montoya began to welcome students into the building. “Line up and you can go get breakfast,” she told one boy. “I’m happy you’re here today.”

The moment kicked off what was a not-quite-normal day in Denver schools. With a deal coming just an hour before some schools were due to start for the day, teachers and families had little time to adjust their plans. The district also had too little time to reopen early childhood classes that have been closed all week; those will reopen on Friday, officials said.

Building principals got an email around 7 a.m. telling them that the strike was over and that many teachers would be coming back to work. In some buildings, central office staff and substitutes who had been filling in for teachers were already on site when teachers returned to work. And some students who commute long distances didn’t get the word in time to go to schools.

By early afternoon, about 81 percent of teachers in district-run schools had shown up to work, and about 83 percent of students had, according to Denver school district spokesman Will Jones.

In the parking lot outside Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a west Denver elementary school, teachers still clad in the red of their cause gathered in the parking lot to walk in together. Asked what the mood was, reading intervention teacher Denise Saiz said, “Relief!” and her colleagues responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“We’re really excited to get back to the kids,” said fifth grade teacher Emily Mimovich.

While strike participation was high at the school — it was founded with support from the state and local union as a teacher-led school — the teachers said they did not believe there would be hard feelings between those who walked and those who didn’t.

“We have such a good relationship,” said Reyes Navarro, who teaches Spanish to kindergarten and first-grade students. “We understand that you have to do whatever is right for you.”

Parents also said they were eager to have their children get back to school.

Sarah Murphy, who has a third-grader and a 4-year-old preschool student, said this morning was a “bit of a scramble, albeit a welcome one.” She had both children signed up for a day camp at the University of Denver and was unsure if she should send them to school or to camp because she wasn’t sure teachers would be back at school. Then she got word that camp was canceled for both children — but Denver Public Schools preschools are still closed.

“We were left trying to figure out what to do with our ECE4 since they were still closed,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “We know how hard this has been on everyone, but this morning proved that the ECE program was the hardest hit, short notice every step of the way. We very much look forward to tomorrow when both are back in their normal school routines.”

Not everyone returned to school. Some teachers said they needed a day to collect themselves after an emotional experience. Judy Kelley, a visual arts teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, said she and many of her colleagues live too far away from the school to get there on short notice.

But the majority of teachers who went back to work Thursday describe positive experiences returning to their schools. Ryan Marini, a social studies teacher and football coach at South High School, called it the “best day” in 17 years of teaching.

Suzanne Hernandez, a first-grade teacher at Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she and other teachers gathered to walk into school together at 7:45 a.m.

Teachers thanked the subs from central office who were in the building. They headed back to their roles in central offices.

Early in the morning, Hernandez sent a message to her students’ parents to let them know teachers would be back in school. The reaction from students as she greeted them was “overwhelming,” she said.

With the help of paraprofessionals who had prepared lessons, Hernandez said teachers were able to jump right back to where they left off last week.

As far as Valentine’s Day, that celebration will be pushed back until Friday afternoon, she said. For now, teachers are having their own celebration, happy to be back in the classroom.

“I think if there’s any sort of effect from the strike, it’s been a positive one,” she said. “It’s been a very unifying experience.”

Allison Hicks, a teacher at Colfax Elementary, said returning teachers were greeted with hugs, music, smiles and tears.

“After finding out an hour ago we were going back to work, I scrambled home to get ready,” she wrote to Chalkbeat. “I am exhausted, but so excited to be back with my students. This day won’t be normal, but knowing I did my part to put my students first is the best feeling to have.”

Kade Orlandini, who teaches at John F. Kennedy High School, said most of the teachers are back in her building, despite the short notice.

“Teachers were ready, and we are jumping right back into instruction,” she wrote. “Attendance seems lower than normal, but students who are here are ready to learn. The atmosphere in the school is very positive all around.”

What was your experience going back to school? What other questions do you have? Take our survey

Chalkbeat’s Ann Schimke, Erica Meltzer, and Yesenia Robles contributed reporting to this article.