Close to 1,500 parents, educators and community members registered to attend a virtual forum on Sunday with some of NYC’s 2021 mayoral candidates. They wanted to voice their concerns about accessible online learning, educational racial equity, high-risk standardized testing and funding.
According to Maya Wiley – one of the candidates – the meeting was so important that day because the NYC public schooling system “wasn’t working before COVID, and isn’t working during COVID,” and that it was important for New York students to “not only catch up, but to exceed expectation.”
The Association of Black Educators of New York (ABENY), the Eagle Academy of the Bronx and Black Edfluencers United (BE-U) hosted the virtual town hall to discuss educational reform in NYC, particularly within public schools with predominantly Black, Brown, and students of color.
“Parents are an important component and parents also need to be empowered and engaged in understanding what it is their children are learning and how to come alongside them in development,” said Schenay Augustin, a parent, during the forum.
Participating mayoral candidates included former Presidential candidate Andrew Yang, activist and educator Maya Wiley, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, mother and non-profit executive Dianne Morales, NYC controller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams and NYC businessman Ray McGuire.
Seven community members were allowed to direct questions to candidates with a focus on equity and accessibility, educational quality and safety in the classroom.
Some candidates, including Yang, advocated for immediately reopening schools to allow students to catch up on the curriculum they might have missed due to the pandemic.
“We need to reopen schools as soon as possible,” said Yang. “The simple truth is that we should be fighting harder to reopen schools right now, and that is doubly true for communities that are falling behind and young children in particular.”
However, other candidates strongly disagreed with this proposal to improve student performance.
“The first thing we have to do is keep our Black and Brown families from dying,” said Morales. “Right now, the idea of rushing back to schools without first providing our families and our teachers and our children with the adequate [coronavirus] protections is highly problematic.”
One solution proposed to improve online learning was to increase accessibility to broadband internet and devices in order to engage and participate in virtual classrooms. According to Pix News, 77,000 NYC students don’t have access to devices or reliable internet.
“The issue of accessibility to [working] devices is also compounding the difficulty of remote learning.” said Dr. Jawana Johnson, chief achievement officer of the Eagle Academy Foundation. “It can be hard to prioritize remote learning when families are focusing on just meeting basic needs during this pandemic.”
These sentiments were echoed by many candidates including Adams who emphasized the importance of technology to learning saying “equity is the key to education.”
The forum touched on other priorities like the importance of having a school administrative and teaching environment that reflected the students that attended the schools themselves.
“I went to PS 119 and IS 278 in Brooklyn, both schools with a pretty high demographic of Black, Latino and Middle Eastern students,” said former student Maya Layne, 23 who is Black. “When I went to middle school it was a pretty huge shock for me because all of a sudden my teachers didn’t really look like me and I didn’t feel personally connected to any of them.”
Several attendees believed that it was incredibly important to have administrators and teachers that have shared racial experiences or identities with their student body but also be more equipped to educate students of color on their heritage and histories.
“We need equity in hiring processes,” said participant, Melissa Cisco. “The teaching and administrative staff should reflect its [student] population.”
Candidate Scott Stringer proposed a solution to hiring and recruiting 1,000 diverse teachers a year and to “aggressively recruit from communities of color”, but the problem arose that there is often little incentive for many teachers to work at schools with lower high stake standardized test scores.
Another issue discussed was high stakes testing which was suspended in NYC in November of 2020.Yang argued that there was still value in utilizing standardized testing as “data points show how badly New York City is doing.”
But school principal Marc Medley of Patterson, New Jersey disagreed,
“I can tell you that children have the ability to show what they know beyond a high stakes assessment,” he said. “Some children verbalize and conceptualize better than they write. It is just that some students don’t do as well on these tests, and I don’t think they should suffer because of that.”