Op-Ed | The engagement is ‘off’

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Last week the NYC Department of Education (DOE) came to Queens to “listen” to what Queens families had to say about Middle and High School admissions next year. 750 families tuned in, but only sixteen parents were able to share their concerns.

Over 150,000 students across the city apply to middle and high schools each year.  Queens students, who are top-performers in NYC, compete for, and gain entry to, some of the best programs and schools every year-and many families want those opportunities to remain for their children.

Queens was given just two hours on the DOE “Listening Tour”, but the DOE ate up one-quarter of the time with introductions, thank-yous, and a PowerPoint deck that not-so-subtly implies that schools which screen students based on academic proficiency are problematic.  Parent leaders who have already shared their perspectives with the DOE spoke for another thirty minutes.  This left time for only sixteen parents, four students, and two DOE employees spoke.  That was Queens’ engagement.

Of all the speakers, twenty wanted to maintain academic criteria, four wanted to eliminate them, and the students were evenly split.

The newfound interest in engagement appears to be a response to the furor over the Pass/Fail grading policy that the DOE announced without any consultation with families.  Combined with DOE’s edict on disallowing even pre-Covid attendance for admissions, and the absence of State Tests this year, the DOE has created the perfect storm to get rid of academically-screened schools.  It is noteworthy that admissions policies for schools that screen for artistic talent, language, IEP status, geography, etc., will remain unaltered.

The DOE employs an extensive and expensive Department of Family and Community Engagement (now “Empowerment”). Yet that department actively blocks meaningful engagement by creating an additional layer of red tape, holding parent leaders at arms’ length from DOE decision-makers.  One need only look at the job description for the Deputy Chancellor for Community Engagement (now “Empowerment”), Partnership, and Communications (salary, $198,000+):  “The Deputy Chancellor serves as the chief advisor to the Chancellor related to strategic communications, external affairs, and community engagement/empowerment aligned to the goals, objectives, and priorities of the Department, the Chancellor, and the Mayor.”  Shouldn’t the person in charge of parent engagement/empowerment be aligned to the goals, objectives, and priorities of the parents?

When the Mayor withdrew his botched SHSAT proposal last year, he “pledged more engagement” with Asian constituents.  Yet the City ignored Asian-American communities when it imposed its Pass/Fail pandemic grading policy without soliciting input for that decision.  Even more egregious, teachers and principals first learned of the grading policy during the Mayor’s news conference.

Parents are rightly suspicious that the DOE is using COVID to try to dismantle academically screened schools. The DOE claims that the admissions changes are a one year “tweak” due to COVID, but if that is true why meet with so many “other stakeholders”, such as pastors, elected officials and academics instead of 4th and 7th grade families whose children will apply to Middle and High School next year?  

The Bronx, Staten Island, and Manhattan meetings were no more “engaging”, with the identical wasted time for DOE speechifying and myriad technical difficulties, despite paying for a professional hosting service.  Just sixteen parents and ten parent leaders spoke for the entirety of the Bronx and twenty-four parents and five parent leaders did so in Staten Island.  In Manhattan, nine parent leaders and eighteen parents (not all residing in Manhattan) spoke.  Tonight, Brooklyn has its shot at engagement.  Hats off to the lucky fifteen or twenty parents who will represent their entire borough.

The DOE wants parents to know they have been heard.  But “hearing” is a passive act.  Parents don’t want to be heard; they want their wishes respected.  The clear majority of voices in Queens and the entirety of those in Staten Island have emphatically stated that they do not want to see an end to academically matched schools.  Will the DOE claim that those parents were heard?  Engaged?  Empowered?  It’s time to call off this sham engagement and start listening to what parents say they need AND making policies to meet those needs.

Deborah Alexander is a Queens mom of 4th and 7th grade public school students and is the Community Education Council Co-President for District 30.

Yiatin Chu attended public schools in Queens. She is a mom of a 3rd grade public school student, a member of her school’s SLT, CEC1 and co-president of PLACE NYC.