What is the role of parents in the Yonkers Public Schools (YPS)? Is partnership with parents limited to some? Why would you exclude parents if it is about education and not Politics? Who exactly has access and why? Why do systems of power get away with not following the law?
As a person who grew up in Yonkers, and attended the Yonkers Public Schools (proud graduate of Saunders High School–Go Blue Devils!!!) I did not expect to have the bitter experience I had and continue to have with this school district. I am left wondering what happened to the role of parents in this school system? Are only certain parents invited to participate in active engagement with the school district or is there open access? Is intimidation and exclusion the active methodology utilized with parents or is inclusion possible? As I started to have more conversations with other parents, I realized I was not alone. I found those with resources moved to different school districts. I love my daughter more than anyone else in the world, and I love the city that helped raise me, but I am left wondering what exactly is the problem here and more importantly, how do we collaboratively fix it if we are not allowed to participate?
Below is my experience with the Yonkers Public Schools Administration’s attempted intimidation, lack of transparency, and exclusion from a school district that claims to seek partnership with parents.
When attempted Intimidation goes wrong
Full disclosure, I’m a single parent and work hard, long hours and multiple jobs to make ends meet. When the pandemic hit, I was an essential worker in all three of my jobs. I was ill-equipped to teach my daughter and ensure progress, and as someone who came from a socio-economically stressed background-EDUCATION IS FUNDAMENTAL TO SUCCESS!!! To me it is the factor that helps you move past bias, the various -isms and help individuals maintain peace, calm and happiness. Due to my anxiety, I spoke to someone else, Carolyn Solieri who wanted to advocate for better partnership with the Yonkers Public Schools and we wanted to host a parent meeting. This was the birth of the Yonkers Parents Seeking Solutions! We put up flyers to have a parent discussion. The flyers were then brought to the attention of the district, who thought it best to call my employer, even though my phone number was on all the flyers. I am willing to bet if my employer was Google, McDonalds, or Dominos Sugar, my employer would not have received a call. My part-time employer at the time, happened to be the NYS Senate Education Chair. She always carries herself with grace, poise and integrity, thus she did not dismiss my appointed position, instead I was allowed to resign on my own terms. Let me; however, highlight the intrinsic problem with this scenario. The Yonkers Public Schools, like all other schools, have an affirmative NYS mandate to help children learn how to problem solve with each other without utilizing intimidation tactics. DASA, the NYS Law is a required training for all educators and school staff to identify bullying and teach children better problem solving techniques. The techniques that the Yonkers BOE Board of Trustees and Administration utilized, I hope would not be the techniques they would teach my child to problem solve or your children for that matter. Imagine trying to advocate for your child and other children and your employer is contacted about your passion outside of working hours, especially when it has to do with your child’s education?
Our first meeting we talked about our shared trauma and joys, and then we talked about how we can have a better experience. WE wanted to partner with the district to have our questions answered. Several parents submitted questions. We created categories and copied, pasted and submitted. We requested a meeting. Again, my employer was called. I was confused because my personal cell phone number was on flyers and certainly the district has access to my phone number and my email because I have a child in the district, so could contact me for clarification, yet and still, I was not contacted directly for clarification. Why would a district that wants parental involvement continue to contact my employer? Why would the district not contact the parent directly? Is this a greater issue of respecting parents as equal partners? I am a parent in the district. I thought I was a respected stakeholder. I was not contacted to address issues that arose. I was not contacted to problem solve or partner. In fact, to me, it ultimately seems like the District was only interested in utilizing their access and power to try to intimidate me. How do I have respect for these individuals now? I was raised to show respect regardless of how other people act.
Carolyn started speaking up in every City Council Meeting about our children and their need for access through devices, because we were confident the schools would not open normally in September.
Is collaboration only limited to some?
The district spent the first hour of our meeting talking about their background to stakeholders and parents of the YPS. The second hour we started talking about our questions and then we ran out of time. During this meeting, we were told that the main parent body is the YCPTA. This is who the district will work in collaboration with and they made that clear. Don’t get me wrong, the YCPTA is fine. I am a member of the Pearls PTA. The district should collaborate with them; however, they cannot ONLY collaborate with that parent organization. If you respect parents as partners then you must recognize that collaboration with only one group is exclusionary.
I continued with Carolyn to advocate for devices. Carolyn attended the budget meetings and advocated for devices for our children. Those devices were not prioritized.
Who else can help us?
As I kept hearing that we are not a 1:1 district and the budget presentation documented that more than half of our children qualified for free and reduced lunch, which made me realize, parents had to prioritize food, especially during a pandemic where financial resources were scarce and little was left for devices. Carolyn and I emailed City Council members and wanted an emergency meeting to get devices for children. Councilman Rubbo wanted us to come up with ideas to fund the devices. Though we found Councilperson Rubbo’s response disturbing and offputting we were willing to work collaboratively to problem solve. I am fully aware that one of the biggest responsibilities of the City Council is to balance and pass the budget, it is also to modify the budget during times of catastrophic events, like a pandemic. We made several attempts to reach the City Council Budget chair, because to me, it seemed there was no choice but to bond for devices. Before this meeting could take place we had a meeting with Mayor Spano, the Commissioner of Finance, Dr Quezada and some City Council members who joined. Mayor Spano, empathized and stated that being one of 16, he could not understand how all of them would have gotten online and each child needed a device, especially in our city that has so much need. We were grateful that the Mayor did not agree with the District’s policy of one device per family.
Was it a victory?
We felt happy that children were now going to get devices to access their education based on the word of everyone on the call, and the Mayor stated that it was not just one per family but each and every child that needed a device would receive it. The schools did not open in September. Though we were told that devices were enroute to be delivered by the opening of schools, they were delayed. The ones handed out to some needed to be fixed and replaced. The issue was a supply shortage, but there was no transparency from the district about this shortage. Instead, we were told they should be here shortly because they were ordered in June. When asked by the council when they will bond for additional devices we were told they were waiting on specific numbers. We were given this same answer in October as well. Seemed we were not the only ones who could not get accurate information from the district in a timely manner.
Where are the kids?
As we continued on our path to trying to get answers, we were given vague answers like “Out of 6,002 students, 360 (6%) of these students have had no activity at all since the beginning of September. 5,642 students (94%) have since had at least some activity” We asked for clarification as to what, “some activity meant”? We also asked if there was a way to distinguish if students are utilizing their parents cell phones or other mobile devices, which are not conducive for maximizing educational interaction with teachers and learning activities.
Please see Email response from John Rubbo
“1. What is the total number of students who are absent on an average school day in a non-COVID year?
There was a 93.7% attendance rate in the 2018-2019 school year.
2. Has central office staff reached out to the absent students or their parents to ask why they are absent? Are the students absent because they do not have technology?
The district’s school leaders are responsible for assigning school staff members to call the families of all students that are not attending school. The central office team has also engaged in this work. Please note that the reasons for not attending vary. A number of families have left the district altogether. Those families that indicate that the reason for their child’s absence is due to lack of technology are provided with laptops immediately.
3. Have the 10 to 15% of students who were absent between 9/8 and 9/15 logged in at all during that period or since 9/15?
- From 9/8 to 9/15 – 6,002 students were absent at least once,
- Out of 6,002 students, 360 (6%) of these students have had no activity at all since the beginning of September,
- 5,642 students (94%) have since had at least some activity,
- 58 students district-wide have been absent for 20 days in a row. That’s 0.23% of the Yonkers Public Schools student body,
- Out of the 58 absent students, 33 students (0.13%) have not logged into Teams from 9/1 to 10/20.
4. How many of the absent students are on the list of 4500 students who requested a device in the district’s survey but did not receive one?
- Out of the 6,002 students, 2,726 (45%) students requested a tech device,
- 1,112 students (41%) received a loaner device,
- 1,714 students are pending—the district has not been able to contact some families,
- The attendance rate demonstrates that of the 1,714 awaiting devices, the vast majority are logging into their classes on a smartphone, laptop or tablet,
- Of the 58 absent students who were absent for 20 days in a row (referenced above), 22 requested a laptop from the district, 8 have received a device and 14 students are pending a device as of 10/20,
- Building administrators and Central Office staff have been reaching out to families to find out the reasons for the students absences as well as to provide a device if needed, but to date the district has not made contact with these families.
We have rights…don’t we?
As a publicly funded entity, the Yonkers Public Schools are supposed to follow rules like the Freedom of Information Law. In short this is called FOIL, Carolyn FOILED all the grants and I FOILED all contracts for the school year 2018/2019, 2019/2020 and 2020/2021. This includes all facilities contracts, all collective bargaining contracts, all independent contractor contracts and the contracts for the devices ordered. Since any individual can request this information, certainly me, a parent of a child in the district and Yonkers Resident, should be given the information, which the law says I have a right to request and they have a responsibility to produce.
I was first told the district needed more time. I wished them a Happy Thanksgiving and waited patiently for December 18th for my documents. When I finally received a response it was the collective bargaining agreements for the three unions and no further contracts. I waited for an extended period of time and the school district stated my ask for too extensive. NO further information was given and there is NO indication when I will get the FOILED information. It leaves me wondering…what exactly are you hiding? And perhaps more importantly, why?
Is partnership possible or have people in positions of power forgotten who put them in power?
You be the judge. We requested a joint meeting with the Mayor, the President of the Board of Trustees and the Superintendent. We were told there is a meeting set up with the YCPTA for January 5 and 6, 2021, called “Let’s Chat with the Superintendent meetings.” This meeting does not seem to include the Mayor so it would seem our meeting is a distinct meeting. We have to date not gotten a response from the Mayor’s office or the President of The Board of Trustees. So I again question…what is the role of the parents in Yonkers with the School District, with the Politicians and with systems of power? I question not only the Yonkers Public Schools, but also the Yonkers Board of Education-Board of Trustees and the Mayor’s office for not responding. When did it become acceptable for large systems in our city to engage in intimidation, ignoring, exclusion of stakeholders who want to actively work together to help our students?
By Christine Peter