Monday, January 24, 2011

Battle of Brooklyn

Michael Galinsky is the father of two girls in a local elementary school and the co-director of a documentary about the Atlantic Yards development, “Battle of Brooklyn.”
If you have been to a protest in the last 10 years, you’ve likely heard the chant, “The people, united, will never be defeated.” The corollary is true as well. When the government pits community against community, as it is now doing by promoting charter schools designed to compete with community schools, the people, divided, will always lose.
Galinsky headshotFiona Galinsky
For the past seven years, my partner and I have worked ona film about the Atlantic Yards project.  As we finish the editing of this film, we are starkly aware of the painful parallels between that story and the way that the battle over our schools is playing out. Top-down decision-making fails to take into account the situation on the ground, which leaves those most affected by the arrangements feeling powerless, divided and battling their neighbors for resources.
Many of the wealthiest and most powerful people and foundations in America — including Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, President Barack Obama, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation — have put their support behind the concepts of school choice, competition for funding, accountability, and data-based decision-making. Programs such as the federal “Race to the Top” initiative, which financially rewards states for enacting educational reform along these lines, treat schools much like businesses, and families like consumers.  In its promotion of charter and unzoned specialized schools, this approach directs resources towards creating new schools, while diverting them from the ones that exist.
This has begun to have powerful consequences in District 13. When The Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters sought an expansion in the building it shares with P.S. 20, local elected officials expressed a desire to slow down the process to get more community input, and many in an increasingly active P.S. 20 parent community came out strongly against the expansion — but the Department of Education’s Panel for Education Policy still approved it. Only a month later, the community at P.S. 9 is waging a fierce campaign against the insertion of a new charter in their school.

Instead of consulting with the communities in these schools, DOE officials make determinations based on data about how many students are in the buildings. This data set does not take into account the fact that these schools have shown increasing parent involvement, test scores and enrollment.  In the case of P.S. 9, enrollment is growing at such a strong rate that it will be bursting at the seams in a few short years. If the DOE inserts a charter school, P.S. 9’s energy and enrollment will be stifled as the schools within the building are forced to compete for space and resources.   In both the cases of P.S. 20 and P.S. 9, the communities in these schools have expressed the sense that no one in a decision-making position is listening to them or supporting them.
Despite its massive public cost and impacts, the public also had no formal way to exert influence on the Atlantic Yards project.  When it was announced, an architecture critic for The New York Times praised the project as “A Garden of Eden,” and necessary to make Brooklyn a “well-equipped urban paradise.” In order to build support for the project, the public relations machine pushed the mantra, “jobs, housing, hoops.”  Who wouldn’t want jobs, housing, and hoops?
Just like school choice and educational accountability, it sounded great on paper, but things were more complex in reality. Over the previous decade, hundreds of people had moved into the southwest corner of Prospect Heights, which had formerly been anchored by industries like newspaper printing. Along with the long-term residents, they had contributed to the area’s resurgence.  Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell the community anything about the plans that would eliminate their neighborhood before the the project was announced as a done deal.
The nationwide campaign to promote accountability-based educational reform dwarfs that of this giant development project. In her bestselling book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,”Brooklyn-based education scholar Diane Ravitch points out that the billionaire supporters of charters and accountabilitybelieve that if schools are forced to compete with each other for students and resources, then market forces will improve education. Ms. Ravitch, who was originally a supporter of these ideas, looked at data tracking the results of these methods, and concluded that they were not achieving the desired outcomes.  In fact, she found that the only reliable indicator of a student’s success or failure was their relative prosperity, or lack thereof.  She points out that the data shows that poverty is the problem, and not the schools.
One problem with the accountability model is that it gives teachers and schools incentives to teach kids how to take tests, and it gives communities an incentive to fight over resources rather than reasons to collaborate.  It also ignores the complexities of how communities operate.  As Diane Ravitch discovered, local schools often serves as anchors for their communities, and when they are penalized or closed, rather than supported, the social fabric of these communities is left in tatters. The accountability model might lead to more efficient production of inanimate products, but it doesn’t lead to harmonious communities.
After a seven-year community fight, an arena is now being built in Prospect Heights.  Homes, businesses, and city streets were seized for the project, yet few of the promised benefits which served to divide the community are coming to pass. Only 100 of the expected 17,000 year-long construction jobs existed as of October, the Daily News reported.  Thousands of affordable units of housing were promised, but concrete plans for residential development have not yet materialized.  No local elected officials had a vote on the project, so there was no way for the community to have any meaningful influence on how the project might look. When people have no say about decisions regarding their community, they feel hopeless.
At the beginning of our film, City Council member Letitia James has the following to say at an early-stage community meeting about the project: “Frank Gehry, the architect, said he wanted to build a community from scratch.  Well, I wanted to tell him that a community already exists there.  What we need to do is develop it, but not destroy it.”
When it comes to our local schools, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves how we, that existing community, can work together, neighbor with neighbor, to support all of our children in the broadest way possible.

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