Friday, September 21, 2012

We fought the invasion of PS 15: a real-life "Won't Back Down" story

Lydia Bellahcene and Julie Cavanagh

The following was written by Julie Cavanagh and Lydia Bellahcene, a teacher and a parent at PS 15 in Brooklyn.  This is their real-life “Won’t Back Down” story, unlike the Hollywood version featured in the film of the same name that will open nationwide on Sept. 28.  You can also check out my review of the movie.  If you are a parent or educator and have your own real-life Won't Back Down story you’d like to share, please send it to us at  Thanks!
The movie “Won't Back Down” is a work of fiction but is said to be based on real life events.  It tells the story of a teacher and a parent in a 'failing' school who join forces to 'save their school'.  The tale is a powerful one and some viewers may find themselves rooting for the protagonists.   We too identify with the film, but not because we belong to a poorly performing school.  Instead, we have fought to save our successful public school from the invasion of a charter school, which is not a story that the pro-privatization producers of the film would be likely to tell.

We are a teacher and a parent at PS 15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, also known as the Patrick F. Daly School.  Ours is an elementary school that gets an “A” according to the NYC Department of Education’s own accountability system, despite enrolling large numbers of students with disabilities and English Language Learners.  Our school has been the heart of the Red Hook community in Brooklyn for decades.  It has a rich history, including surviving the crack epidemic in the 1980's and the loss of its beloved principal, Patrick Daly, to gun violence in 1992, while he was searching for an absent student in a housing project nearby.
As the NY Times reported at the time of Patrick Daly’s death: “Distraught children, teachers and other staff members at P.S. 15 yesterday mingled sobs with praise for a principal who had not only raised the academic sights and achievements of the 685 pupils from pre-kindergarten through the sixth grade, but had also raised the self-esteem of thousands of children. “
In 2008, the DOE announced that a new charter school called PAVE Academy would be co-located in our building.  The charter school was started by Spencer Robertson, the son of the hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson, a close political ally and supporter of both Mayor Bloomberg and Mitt Romney.  (LH Note: Julian Robertson also manages to evade paying city taxes by having his secretary calculate exactly how many days he needs to be out of the city every year to escape being categorized as a resident.)

Spencer Robertson

When it was announced that the PAVE charter would be placed in our building, the Red Hook community stood united against this invasion.  Parents, young people, community members and teachers protested against the loss of space and services that would have a negative impact on our students.  They also questioned the need for a charter school because Red Hook already had a successful public school that is cherished and beloved.  Despite the public outcry, the department forced the charter into our building, but promised this would last only one year while Mr. Robertson looked for another, privately owned building to lease. 
Julian Robertson
The DOE also gave $26 million dollars in city capital funds to help Spencer. Robertson  so he could build his own charter school nearby, despite the fact that he could surely have asked his billionaire father to finance this construction, and our community neither needs nor wants a charter school in our midst.
Even though DOE officials initially promised PAVE would stay only one year,  in the spring of 2009 we learned that they intended to allow the school to stay and expand in our building  for an additional five years.  We were told of this change of heart not by DOE, but by a reporter with the Daily News.
Parents and teachers  at PS 15 immediately joined forces and created a grassroots organization called CAPE, or Concerned Advocates for Public Education, to protest DOE’s broken promise,  and to fight for our students’ right to retain critical classroom space and rooms for special education and intervention services. 
We met with our local elected officials, wrote letters, circulated petitions, organized meetings in the neighborhood public library, canvassed the community, and held rallies.  We were so committed to standing up and not backing down, we even filed a lawsuit so that we could protest in front of the Mayor Bloomberg’s residence on the Upper East Side, after the city tried to bar us from his block, having declared it a no-First Amendment zone.
We collected more than 1,000 petition signatures and letters of support from every local elected official.  Hundreds of community members attended our rallies.  At hearings, the opponents to the extension of the charter’s stay in our building outnumbered supporters by more than two to one.  Yet the Board of Education, otherwise known as the Panel for Education Policy, which has a super-majority of Mayor Bloomberg's appointees  voted to extend the co-location by an additional three years. 
Our story doesn't fit into simplistic narrative that the makers of “Won’t Back Down” would like to portray:  that teacher unions are the main obstacles to school reform.  We don’t believe that closing public schools and opening charters are the answers to any of the problems that public schools face.  Our fight is against the billionaires and hedge fund operators who are intent on undermining our public schools in their fierce campaign to privatize the system.
Sad to say, our story won't be the subject of any Hollywood film, and it does not have a Hollywood ending, but it is real and should serve as a cautionary tale for parents, educators and all others who believe in fighting to preserve and strengthen our public schools as the centerpiece of our nation’s democracy. 


Anonymous said...

Don't give up the fight- keep posting and the larger Brooklyn community will come through.

Anonymous said...

I think the parents and community of any school have the right to stand up and fight for what they want for a school, even when there are opposing sides - both sides have the right to express - however there is always a victor and sometimes it is not our side that is victorious and that is hard to accept sometimes. In this case the school was successful and the community wants the school just the way it is - I say the charter should of found some other temporary home. I could understand if the school was historically non-performing, but it appears the school itself was a piece of history in this community and it should of been protected for its success and historical significance.

Anonymous said...

Parents and the community of any school system have the right to stand up and speak at School Board Meetings! If parents and the community unite and support educators to the School Board, Superintendent, and the Governor, they will be more supportive of hearing what is the failing of the system from Educators. Otherwise, you have people that have NEVER been in a class making uneducated decisions about EDUCATION!

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