The school year ended in New York City for most students and their families on Wednesday, but debates that have dogged the system — about integration, the prestigious specialized high schools, and pay parity for pre-K teachers — remained conspicuously unresolved.
Dueling afternoon protests erupted at City Hall. Just outside, some voiced opposition to the focus of schools Chancellor Carranza on racial bias in the school system. But inside, students from the youth organization Teens Take Charge, which has not been shy about calling out Mayor Bill de Blasio’s lack of progress integrating the city’s more than 400 high schools, occupied part of the building prior to the start of a city council meeting.
“We want to remind the mayor that we need action now,” said Sophie Mode, a rising junior at Millennium Brooklyn High School who participated in the sit-in. “Every single day a student is walking into a segregated high school where so many students are not receiving the education that they need and deserve, and this is something that he can change.”
More than a dozen students sat in the lobby of City Hall and shared their own experiences with inequity in New York City schools and repeating chants like, “Education is a right! Not just for the rich and white!”
They were joined by education chair Mark Treyger, and other councilmembers, including Brad Lander, Antonio Reynoso, Keith Powers, and Inez Barron.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Treyger told the students. “We can’t afford another study or another working group that will put out something three, four, five years down the road. We need integration now.”
Some of the power to enact change rests in Albany. But the legislative session ended last week with lawmakers again declining, for the second year in a row, to approve a plan put forward by Mayor Bill de Blasio to eliminate the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, or SHSAT, which solely governs admissions to the city’s prestigious specialized high schools.
That plan — a bid to help integrate the schools, which enroll only 10 percent black and Hispanic students, a demographic that makes up about two-thirds of the school system — has prompted fiery pushback. Asian parents, whose children make up a disproportionate share of enrollment, have fought particularly hard against the proposal.
Just outside City Hall, some who have protested the plan said the city has focused divisively on issues of race and called for Carranza’s ouster. They criticized the school chief’s hiring practices and his rollout of implicit bias training, which have recently come under fire. The protesters, who also support preserving the SHSAT, sang “We Shall Overcome” as they marched away from City Hall and ended their rally.
“He’s polarizing different minority groups, and his strategy is divisive. It’s like diversity is everything, and merit means nothing,” said Linda Lam, an advocate from Elmhurst who helped coordinate the protest.
Missing altogether was Mayor de Blasio, who was in Florida for the first presidential debate, an absence that attracted criticism on social media. As de Blasio makes his longshot bid for the White House, he has touted the city’s progress in making pre-K universal for all city 4-year-olds.
But the mayor’s signature achievement is also weighed down by some unfinished business: Pre-K teachers who work in community organizations, which enroll the majority of pre-K students, have been fighting for pay equal to pre-K teachers in public schools. The salary disparity can be as high as 60 percent — and is particularly striking because, unlike in public schools, many teachers in community programs are black or Hispanic.
Earlier this month, the mayor and city council members announced they had agreed on a “path” towards pay parity as a part of their budget deal. The details, however, are still being worked out in labor negotiations.
With little information beyond a verbal commitment to boost teacher pay, some pre-K teachers have grown impatient, and those who aren’t unionized wonder if they will be included in the final deal.
On Wednesday, Keun-woo Lee, who has taught pre-K in the Bronx for the last two years, called on her fellow educators to tweet at the other presidential candidates ahead of the debate to highlight the fight for equal pay.
“If there’s more national attention around it, I feel like city leaders and elected officials will feel more pressure to do something that’s actually real,” she said.
Lee said she makes $45,000 and is leaving the classroom this summer for a policy fellowship at the education department. She said she has been frustrated by all the positive attention the mayor has gotten for rolling out universal pre-K, or UPK, even while the salary disparities remain.
“The success of UPK was done on the backs of women of color,” Lee said. “He’s just perpetuating these systems of inequity.”