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Occupy Wall Street protesters find a cause in protecting education jobs

Local education workers forged an unexpected alliance with the Occupy Wall Street protesters Tuesday, when hundreds from each group converged in front of City Hall to denounce the city’s plan to fire more than 700 school workers, many from the South Bronx, by the end of the week.

It seemed an odd alliance, at first. The multiracial group of mostly middle-aged school aides and kitchen workers, wearing bright blue District Council 37 hats and green t-shirts, were fighting for their jobs.

The mostly young, white Occupy Wall Street protesters, wearing just about anything, have been fighting for a broad spectrum of issues. The group that has been camped out in the financial district for 17 days is growing in numbers around wide-ranging targets such as  corporate greed, government cutbacks and Mayor Bloomberg’s policies.

When the two groups joined forces, a loud cheer erupted.  “Our children are behind us,” shouted Eddy Rodriguez, president of District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal public employee union that represents parent coordinators, kitchen workers, classroom aides and other school workers.

Other DC 37 leaders immediately acknowledged the potential for solidarity. “We’re gonna join them down there,” said Lillian Roberts, the union’s executive director, from the stage overlooking Broadway referring to the protesters in Zuccotti Park. “Their fight is our fight.”

Union officials predicted that the South Bronx would be one of the hardest areas hit by the cuts. Among the total layoffs, 46 are expected to come from Bronx schools.  Morrisania’s District 9 would lose 8 percent, and Hunts Point’s District 8 would lose 5 percent of its total school workers, a union spokesperson said.

One Highbridge resident who works as a direct support assistant at Public School 73 where his three children attend said he expects to keep his job, but he’s worried about others in his school.

“No teacher wants to leave a classroom dirty. They’re going to pick up a broom,” said Evans Quamina, who is also president of Local 443. He was referring to the janitors in danger of losing their jobs.  “If the focus is on keeping classes clean, the kids aren’t learning anything.”

Bronx resident Ella Arouz found out last week that she was being laid off from her job as a health aide worker at Brooklyn International High School, a position she’s held for the last 15 years.

“Those are my babies,” the Nicaraguan immigrant said about her students. “I watched them grow. I helped them get glasses. I taught them to care about their health. Who will help them now?”

An Occupy Wall Street protester said she understood firsthand the importance of school workers in children’s lives. “My school aides encouraged me to go to class,” said Alex Krales, 22, who attended New York City public schools. “They kept me out of fights and made me feel unique in an overcrowded school.”

A 26-year-old anti-Wall Street protester said he understood that the layoffs would be felt most by low-income women in the city. “I am here to stand with my fellow union workers,” said David Pugh, a security guard from Brooklyn. “We need to protect and defend the most vulnerable members of society.”

Other Bronx residents who joined the rally were dismayed by the potential job losses. “These adults, the counselors and health aides, are the first line of intervention for kids,” said Liana Maris, an outside program coordinator at Crotona International High School in the Bronx. “They end up providing emotional safety, especially if the youth can’t get it at home.”

Riverdale resident Shekema Brown, 37, is not a school worker, but came to the rally to show her support.  “I suggest not laying off the workers, said Brown “and finding the money somewhere else.”

Union officials claimed that DC37 had offered other cost saving solutions that the city rejected in June. “The Bloomberg administration’s plan to lay off school support staff shows a reckless disregard for the well-being of New York’s 1.1 million school children and their families,” said DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts in a press release. “Principals were mandated to make these cuts by the city apparently to close a budget gap. Yet when the union offered a proposal generating real savings to bridge the budget gap and save the jobs of these valuable workers, the city cut off discussions.”

At Tuesday’s protest, one fired school worker wept quietly on the edge of the crowd. “I served those kids breakfast and lunch everyday,” said Catherin Rozell, who said she recently lost her nine-year job as a school aide at P.S. 270 in Brooklyn. “And now I have nothing.”

City council spokesperson Justin Goodman said the council will be holding hearings on the layoffs soon.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, FeaturedComments (0)

Emotional pleas aside, panel votes to close Bronx Academy

When Angel Sosa transferred to Bronx Academy High School in the South Bronx almost a year and a half ago as a sophomore, he only had 10 credits out of the roughly 44 needed to graduate. “I woke up this morning with three acceptance letters to college,” the 18-year-old senior told  the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, which on Thursday night voted to close the school.

In March, the Department of Education proposed the phase out of Bronx Academy because of its poor performance and its inability to turn its failing record around quickly. The school received two F’s and a C in its last three report cards.

Students and teachers presented data to demonstrate the changes the school has implemented in the past eight months under the leadership of new Principal Gary Eisinger. According to a 43-page document distributed to the panel, the school saw a 25 percent increase in the number of students who passed the Regents exams, and attendance is up to 73 percent from 67 percent.

Senior Snanice Kittel, 16, told the panel members that  her teachers genuinely cared about students and were helping them to succeed. “They will call in the morning to make sure you go to class. And they will even visit your house and talk to your parents if you haven’t come,” she said, explaining that these practices were put in place under the new administration.

Their case was not persuasive enough to convince the panel to vote to save the school.

“We are proud of the work Gary has done in the school,” said Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg. “Even if there has been improvement, it’s well below what we expect to see,” he said, adding that the numbers presented by the school staff was inaccurate and that its own assessment revealed a different story.

Frederick R. Coscia, a statistician and economics teacher at Bronx Academy, insisted the Department of Education was basing its decision to close the school on two-year-old data. “We deserve our own report this year,” he said.

Monica Major, the Bronx representative to the panel, requested a postponement of the vote to phase out of the school. The motion was denied.

“We asked for a miracle, we got it and now we will not see the end of it,” said Major as the audience yelled at the panel to “look at the data.” She reminded her colleagues on the panel that Bronx Academy High School is a transfer school that takes students who  have already failed in other schools. Opened in 2003, this “transfer school” serves an alternative for overage students who have trouble graduating from a regular high school.

Despite acknowledging the work done by transfer schools and what they represent, the newly appointed Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Bronx Academy “has not done the job.” “We base our decisions on facts and not solely on emotions,” he said, citing the school’s poor performance and its inclusion in the New York State’s “persistent lower achieving” schools list.

“We cannot allow more students to go to a school that is not performing at the standards,” Walcott said.

After four and half hours of testimony and amid chorus of “lies, lies” and “shame on you,” the panel approved the phase-out of Bronx Academy by nine votes to five. Only the five borough representatives opposed the closure. Starting in September, the school will not accept new students and will have until June 2013 to graduate those who are currently enrolled. It will be replaced by Bronx Arena High School, a transfer school that will open its door for the 2011-2012 school year.

English teacher Robert MacVicar expressed his disappointment with the chancellor and the panel for not giving the school a one-year reprieve. “I am saddened by Mr. Walcott’s and Mayor Bloomberg’s failure to take reasonable and compassionate account of our students’ deep and abiding goodness, despite their sometimes soul-trying circumstances at home and on the mean streets of South Bronx,” he said.

Visibly upset, Angel Sosa asked why the panel did not take his testimony and others who spoke into consideration. “I had come with hope,” he said.

As students and supporters of the school left, Principal Eisinger said he appreciated the support he received.

“I put a lot of heart into the school,’’ he said, “and it shows.”

Posted in Education, Former Featured, Southern BronxComments (0)

Immigrants hope for an even better DREAM

When Melissa Garcia Velez started attending Lehman College last fall, she knew her dream of becoming a social worker might he harder to obtain than her fellow classmates.

“I’m an undocumented student,” said Garcia Velez, 18 who lives in Richmond Hill, Queens.  Unless new federal legislation is passed, she will not be able to use her degree in the United States after graduation.

Garcia Velez’ mother immigrated to the U.S. first, looking for a better life and worked as a waitress, babysitter and house cleaner, “whatever she was able to get a hold of to help us back in Colombia,” said Garcia Velez, who immigrated in 2001 at the age of eight with a family friend.

The college student attended public school and learned English as a second language.

Garcia Velez is vice president and co-founder of the Dream Team, a student-run group at the college for students to come together and talk about the Dream Act, a currently defeated piece of legislation that could open up the gateway for undocumented students to become legal citizens.

The Dream Act was the central topic at the immigration conference this week at Lehman College at Lehman’s Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies.  The proposed legislation also known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, is a bill that would give undocumented young people who entered the United States under age 16 the opportunity to obtain legal status through two years or either military service or college.

The Dream Act did not win enough votes in 2010 to overcome a filibuster and is currently stuck in the U.S. Senate.  Still, it energized students at colleges and university campuses around the country, many of whom say they are not giving up on the legislation.

Since the fall, the Dream Team at Lehman has grown from 10 to 25 student members.  “I felt a lot of people joined because they wanted to,” said Garcia Velez.  “They are young people, they have a vision of creating change.”

New York State senator Charles Schumer is currently working on passing Comprehensive Immigration Reform that would tighten border security, mandate all undocumented immigrants to register with the government and create a biometric-based employer verification system.

“Schumer’s proposal, it gives a limited pathway to a small select group of people that are here,” said Alfonso Gonzalez, a political science professor at the college who emigrated from Mexico. “The Schumer plan will not address the causes of immigration.”

Gonzalez, says that despite the recent setbacks in implementing new immigration policy, change will come.  “Every year more and more Latino youth become eligible to vote,” he said during the conference.  “Those youth are going to become long term agents for change.”

Linda Green, director of the Center for Latin American studies at the University of Arizona and associate professor of anthropology said that despite its defeat, the Dream Act has succeeded in mobilizing young people.

But Green does have concerns about the bill in its current form.  She is worried that students who can’t afford college would choose to go into the military first to earn their college tuition.  “It sets migrants up as fodder for us,” she said.

Liliana Yanez, an immigration specialist who works with CUNY Law School students at the Immigration and Refugee Rights Clinic said that advocates of the measure should be conscious of those it might exclude.  Though Yanez supports the Dream Act, she hopes the terms will be re-negotiated. “The Dream Act to me seems like crumbs,” she said.

According to Yanez, minimal military enlistment for new recruits is eight years.  She’s concerned that the Dream Act would set up a “pipeline” for the military. “Whose going to be serving in the military?” she said, “a lot of people who don’t want to serve?”

Yanez also spoke in favor of repealing the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which expanded crimes, forcing mandatory detention on immigrants caught jumping turnstiles or pretty theft.

“Human rights are not just something that happens in far away places, it starts at home,” said Victoria Sanford, chairwoman of the center.  “For our community immigration is a human rights issue.”  The center bridges the school with its past – 65 years ago, the United Nations Security Council met in the U.S. for the first time inside the college’s gymnasium.  During the meeting, the council started to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For Lehman College’s Dream Team formal legislation can’t come soon enough.  “We want to be considered human in the legal sense,” said Garcia Velez.  “We don’t want to be in the shadows anymore.”

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