Sometimes people ask me why I’m so passionate about education reform and I stumble through some cerebral gobbledygook about politics and policy.
I should know better. The answer’s easy. It’s how my parents raised me and it’s why I’m writing for New York School Talk.
Mom and Dad would laugh now if I labeled them “education reformers.” Lifelong employees of the New York City Board of Education, Jerry Paykin was a social studies teacher (John Bowne High School) and Emily (nee Weinman) was a social worker (Francis Lewis High School and Cardoza). They were both children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who came to this country with nary a dime nor a word of English and my folks took the typical route towards upward mobility: public education. They loved Albert Shanker and their UFT membership cards. I still know every word to Woody Guthrie’s “There Once Was a Union Maid.”
When I (the oldest of three girls) was ready to start kindergarten, we were living on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx and districted for P.S. 033, then a mediocre elementary school and now, well, worse. So my parents, nascent reformers, made the fiscally-fraught decision to exercise school choice and move to a better district in Queens, where I attended P.S. 115 (K-6), and then started P.S. 172 (7-9).
My elementary school was fine. My junior high? Not so much. Girls were warned not to travel alone in the stairwells and academics were indifferent. My dad, exasperated by the school’s low standards, compensated through his own form of enrichment, which we were lucky enough to afford. But looming ahead was my assigned high school, Martin Van Buren.
This past May, Jenny Sedlis of StudentsFirstNY wrote an editorial about Bill de Blasio’s plans for the city’s “failure factories,” which she alleges “have made little progress under this mayor’s leadership” and continue to operate without appropriate standards and accountability.
One of Sedlis’ examples of these chronically-failing schools is my intended alma mater, Martin Van Buren. She cites recent D.O.E. statistics that show only 55% of enrolled students graduate in four years and, of those that do, only 14% are college- or career-ready.
If time travel were possible, she could have just asked my parents who, 40 years ago, once again exercised school choice and moved us three girls away from Van Buren to a far better school district on Long Island.
Yet many parents can’t afford to relocate to a better district. They continue to endure New York state’s uneven and inequitable education system.
I met some of their children when I was in graduate school at SUNY Binghamton while I was teaching in an Educational Opportunity Program called “Transitional Year.” These NYC students, all poor and many from Spanish-speaking households, had been recognized by teachers or counselors for their intelligence and grade point averages. Yet they arrived on campus for a remedial year utterly unprepared for further study, and the attrition rate was high.
They all had high school diplomas, but those diplomas didn’t mean a thing. That’s just wrong.
Now my husband and I (we met at SUNY Binghamton) live in central New Jersey. We have four children, the youngest with multiple disabilities, and we’re well-versed in choice and accountability, the imperatives for successful school systems. I know this as the daughter of public school educators, as a student, as a teacher, as a school board member, and as a mother.
Education reform is in my bones. So is New York, particularly its public school system. That’s why I’m here.