Saturday, September 22, 2012


Diane Ravitch’s blog |

September 22, 2012

Diane Ravitch asks:

Will Hollywood make this movie?

It is not “based on a true story.”

It is a true story.

It is a story of parents and teachers in Red Hook, Brooklyn, who joined together to fight off the invasion of a billionaire-owned charter school.

It is an inspiring story.

The powerless against the powerful.

The people who love the school standing up to those who see it as real estate.

Read and see what happened.


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

Posted by Leonie Haimson in NYC Parents Blog |

<< Lydia Bellahcene and Julie Cavanagh

Friday, September 21, 2012The 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. 


smf: The parents in Red Hook are not alone, they are not unique.


The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform

Book Review By Patrick Welsh, Washington Post

August 24  :: The Michael Brick’s “Saving the School” is a compelling, enlightening account of a school community rising to save itself in the unforgiving, data-driven, often nonsensical world bequeathed to public education by No Child Left Behind. Brick, a former New York Times writer, spent the 2009-10 school year chronicling the unrelenting efforts of Principal Anabel Garza, her staff and students to prevent Reagan High School in East Austin from being closed by the Texas Education Agency, which for four straight years had slapped Reagan with the label “academically unacceptable.” Without dramatic improvement in the scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills given in the spring of 2010, Reagan faced the prospect of being permanently closed and its students being shipped out of their neighborhood to other schools.

Raising test scores at Reagan was a daunting task. Like many schools across the country, including T.C. Williams in Alexandria, where I teach, Reagan had undergone enormous demographic changes over the past 25 years. In 1990, Reagan’s senior class was approximately 50 percent white, 30 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic. Since then, many middle-class families, white and black, had fled the community as impoverished families from Mexico and Central America poured in. By 2009, Reagan’s student body was 71 percent Hispanic, 26 percent black and 3 percent white; 88 percent of those kids were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Unfortunately, there’s a myth today that the best schools are those with the highest test scores, which, given the correlation between test scores and home life, is simply saying that the good schools are those with kids from the right homes. The fact is that the best schools are those that take their students wherever they are academically and move them forward as far as possible. By that measure, Reagan may be one of the best schools in the country, regardless of what the Texas Education Agency might think of its test scores.

Education reform is full of vapid cliches, but the one that happens to be absolutely true is this: The principal is key. It is also true that being a principal of a high school is such an onerous, pressure-packed, time-consuming job that many common-sense educators who wish to have a life want no part of it. Of all the portraits Brick draws, that of Garza, a combination of Mother Teresa and Vince Lombardi, is the most captivating.

A 47-year-old widow, Garza often worked 16-hour days. As the critical 2009-10 school year began, before she could even start to think about raising test scores, she had to be able to meet the Texas “completion rate” requirement, which meant that by Sept. 25, she had to prove that 75 percent of the kids who entered Reagan as ninth-graders were still enrolled in the school and on track to graduate in four years. Even if 75 percent of each grade was still enrolled, the school could fail to meet the requirement if any one of the subgroups stipulated by No Child Left Behind — in Reagan’s demographic, African American, Hispanic, white, and economically disadvantaged — fell under 75 percent.

Reagan made the 75 percent figure a few days before the deadline, thanks to Garza’s calling homes, cajoling wanna-be gang members in a nearby mall, and sending colleague Eric Sanchez all over the school district to pound on doors and pick up kids hanging out on the streets. But as often happens in the No Child Left Behind world, no good deed goes unpunished. Both Garza and Sanchez knew that the kids they were rounding up to meet the completion rate were those most likely to pull down the crucial test scores at the end of the year.

Keeping track of completion rates, the flip side of drop-out rates, is a bureaucratic nightmare for school counselors and administrators nationwide, especially in schools where there are highly mobile populations. If a child moves with his or her family to another state, the school he or she leaves must prove that the child is enrolled in a new school. If a family just leaves without notice and cannot be tracked down, the child is counted as a drop-out, and the school gets a black mark from the state.

As the April Texas assessment tests grew near, Garza had to play another numbers game, this time to meet the tests’ “measure of participation.” Of the 163 sophomores at Reagan, 96 percent, or 155 sophomores, had to take the test for the school to even begin to shed the “academically unacceptable” label. Garza took to the streets herself, renting a minivan with a GPS to track down students who had been recent no-shows. Idealistic though she is, Garza went after the best students first, those most likely to pull up her scores. At one house, after knocking several times on a door and getting no answer from a student she knew was inside, she began banging on a bedroom window to rouse the girl, whom she knew to be “a good test taker” and able to help raise the Hispanic scores.

Next to Garza, the most interesting player in the drama to save Reagan was 27-year-old chemistry teacher Candice Kaiser, a hard-partying wild woman turned born-again Christian. Like a number of great teachers I have come across, Kaiser was a zealot, impassioned and somewhat eccentric. She took no prisoners but loved her students dearly, getting all their cellphone numbers by telling them, “If there’s an issue I will call you first, before calling your parents.” If kids gave her a fake number, she came to their home to talk to their parents. When one student said, “Ms. Kaiser, you have no life,” she said to the class, “Y’all are my life,” and from Brick’s account, one has to believe her. Kaiser broke down the areas where her students showed weakness in practice assessment tests, not just in chemistry but in all their subjects, and then got volunteers from her church to tutor students in those areas.

The results of the April tests, which came back to Reagan in late May, showed remarkable improvement across the board — the science scores of black kids had more than doubled — and as a result, Reagan shed the “academically unacceptable” label.

As a teacher, much of “Saving the School” resonated with me, especially the fact that Garza was allowed to take care of the crisis herself, without interference from the superintendent’s office. That is not the case in my school, T.C. Williams, which is undergoing a three-year “transformation” plan after being labeled a “persistently low achieving” school by the U.S. Department of Education. Last year, for instance, students were given three days off — one of them in the midst of Advanced Placement tests and just before the crucial state exams — so teachers could undergo professional development created by the office of a newly hired assistant superintendent. The development sessions were a farce that outraged teachers, lowered their morale and caused them to lose crucial time with their students. Such nonsense would never have happened at Reagan, where Garza ran the whole improvement enterprise and got all her staff to buy in.

For all its virtues, parts of “Saving the School” seem to be digressions. The sections dealing with the life of the school’s basketball coach, as well as the long descriptions of several Reagan basketball games focusing on its star player, struck me as irrelevant filler. There are pages full of dialogue that dies on the page, contributing little or nothing about the individuals and the challenges they face. The excessive use of dialogue makes one wonder not only about the accuracy of Brick’s reconstruction of the conversations, but whether those quoted tailored their remarks in the author’s presence.

Those stylistic issues aside, Brink has created a revealing, inspiring account of an entire school community rising to take on a seemingly impossible task and triumphing.

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