Sept. 21, 2012, 10:46 a.m.
I found myself unusually cheerful as I monitored reports coming out of the Chicago teachers’ strike. A powerful show of force in the streets, I mused, was long overdue on the issue of the American education system.
A friend of mine, however, pointed out that I recently had fought tooth and nail to keep open a charter school, my son’s former school, while the Chicago strikers see the charter movement as an attack on public education.
Faced with this contradiction, I wondered about the battle lines drawn in so many fights about education today. For example, when charter schools offer choices to families but also are seen as a threat to district schools or when union leaders choose to shut down a school system to fight for its members’ rights. In these fights I now see more common ground than people may like to admit, or at least more than I realized.
I felt a connection with the striking Chicago teachers as they fought with City Hall and pointed to two issues that were important to me: class size and an over-emphasis on standardized testing. It reminded me of my battle for education in the Rockaways, where I live, which was not about ideology alone but involved more practical demands.
The bottom line is all of us were fighting for the same thing: high-quality public schools in our neighborhoods.
Earlier this year I wrote to SchoolBook about the fight that I and other
parents of students at Peninsula Preparatory Academy Charter School had waged to stop its closure. Despite protests, petitions and even a meeting with Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, the Department of Education would not heed the voices of the parents. The closure was proceeding until Advocates for Justice, a social justice law firm, and school lawyers were able to secure a restraining order to keep the school open, at least for the short term.
During those hectic months last school year, parents scrambled to make contingency plans, the school administration
balanced a legal fight with all the business of running a school, and our children took grueling year-end tests. Some of the consequences of being left in legal limbo (our charter was not renewed but technically we were still open) were that many students and teachers left the uncertainty of PPA. We also lost our lease on a wonderful facility we had secured two years prior.
Also, as we mobilized we felt the stigma that comes with the label of “charter.” No union-leaning groups or elected officials felt comfortable helping us even as the absurdity of closing one of the Rockaways’ strongest-performing schools was apparent. A casual observer might make the mistake of assuming PPA parents were loyal charter advocates. Some may have been, some not. We
were, more accurately, advocates of Peninsula Prep and its amazing principal, Ericka Wala.
I imagined that the Chicago teachers also felt the political stigma that comes with taking sides in a public demonstration.
Peninsula Prep is now open and currently teaching the Rockaways’ youngest citizens important values that supersede the general
curriculum. One of these is determination, which we will continue to need. The possibility that the school will be closed mid-year still exists.
My son Jadyn is now enrolled in third grade at a district school because PPA’s new location doesn’t allow me time to get him there and deliver my other son to his pre-kindergarten. But my experience at PPA allowed me a chance to experience education in a unique way and lent me some new perspectives on charters, to which I had previously been hostile. A close partnership with the principal and solidarity with parents, forced in a battle for the school, convinced me to continue to advocate for the school.
At a time when some parents needed a restraining order to have their children taught at their school of choice, I believe we have to set the best example possible for our children and continue to fight for education.
Just like the teachers did in Chicago.
Josmar Trujillo is the former co-president of the Peninsula Preparatory Charter School in Rockaway, Queens.