District 15 parents are fed up with overcrowding, loss of pre-K options and high-stakes standardized testing at their schools—that was the overwhelming message communicated by attendants at a town hall meeting Thursday night, where complaints and concerns were voiced in three different languages.
The Chancellor's response? "We're working on it and we'll get back to you."
Parents from area schools in Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill, Park Slope and Sunset Park gathered inside of , on Thursday night for an opportunity to present their concerns to Department of Education in person. After a brief introduction by the Chancellor, in which he heralded increased graduation rates citywide and a new webinar series he plans to initiate next fall to communicate with parents, the forum was opened up to questions, with moderating the exchange.
The three areas of concern most frequently voiced by parents included overcrowding, loss of pre-Kindergarten resources and the toll of Common Core Curriculum Standards on both students and teachers.
"I would like to address the overuse and misuse of standardized testing, the use of ranking of teachers, the narrowing of the curriculum in many of our schools that we’re very concerned about," said Devor. "And the terrible impact, frankly, on teacher morale that’s been caused by that."
Walcott responded that he has tried to express his desire "to be extremely balanced as far as the teacher data reports" and acknowledged that "people should not base their vision on limited or old data."
The Superintendent of District 15, Anita Skop, then chimed in.
"I am the quality reviewer," she said. "It is part of my responsibilities to go in and evaluate schools from the perspective of what children are seeing on a day-to-day basis."
Skop stated that the evaluation pendulum has swung to instructional value and noted that, though many parents may not be aware, there is a rubric in place to evaluate teachers based on their classroom practice, not just standardized testing and teacher–data reports. She also impressed upon parents that, in her estimation, the Common Core test prep had not narrowed the curriculum in district schools.
"I get invited to enrichment fairs," she said. "I've seen students engage in project-based research on a topic of their choice, schools creating inter-visitations with local cultural institutions. Students from PS 154 regularly go to Prospect Park for ongoing research... [PS 146 also has a recurring project in which students construct a wigwam in Prospect Park]... all of these things are enriching the curriculum and not cutting it short. I believe we are going in the direction of structure and that’s the most powerful thing we can do."
Devor was unconvinced, however.
"Much of what you’re talking about happens in spite of not because of the mayor's program and the acquiescene to boldly data-driven procedures," he said.
Parents were equally unfazed.
"Make no mistake, this is high-stakes testing," said Dinah Gieske, a parent at PS 58, who has also worked at multiple schools throughout the city. "The fact is that funding decisions are being made, hiring and firing decisions are being made based on that data."
The focus on common core is so dominant, she said, "that a school like , which has very high performing students still has to spend four weeks on test prep. But no principal is going to say, 'we don’t have to.' Because if the scores drop, there are significant consequences. My daughter was crying because she didn’t want to go back to school for math prep she’d been working on for four weeks and already understood."
In fact, Gieske said that her daughter's grades temporarily went down due to boredom from the repetitive curriculum.
"Test prep can be done in an authentic, common-core aligned way," she said.
Still other parents lined up to express their frustration with the loss of pre-K in many schools and overcrowding. Many Sunset Park parents in attendance who have lost pre-K programs in their schools now have to send their children to Carroll Gardens or Park Slope.
"That's not fair," yelled one parent angrily. "I live in Sunset Park."
And even in Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, students aren't guaranteed a seat at their sibling's school or a local school.
"We know we have more people in these neighborhoods, what’s being done about it?" questioned Marc Tremitiere, a parent at PS 58 whose children have both had difficulties being placed in pre-K and in a neighborhood middle school. "I heard that kids in the top % of their neighborhood weren’t let into Park Slope middle schools. Things seem really messy right now. It’s pitting parent against parent, slot against slots, and neighborhood against neighborhood. We shut down 30 schools and where are [the children] supposed to go? It feels like you guys are fighting us on every front."
While the Chancellor did not address the Park Slope comment, he did say that his colleagues were open to suggestions from parents on sites for future schools in places that have been abandoned or could be repurposed, such as an old movie theater.
"There is a school construction authority to find these things," shot back Devor. "It is not my responsibility to find an old movie theater when you moved a charter school from Sunset Park ."
At least one parent, however, found some sort of inspiration in the comment.
"I've never looked at the problem of overcrowding as something that could be solved by eminent domain," said Kemala Karmen, whose child goes to . "But if they can , then they should be able to tear stuff down for a school."
*An earlier version of this article included a quote that misidentified PS 56 students as building tipis in Prospect Park each year. In fact, PS 146 students construct wigwams in the park.