WTF: Where’s the Funding?

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

On May 30, during her first period AP World History class, Gabriela Soriano learned that her favorite teacher was being reassigned to a different school in the district. She and other students at Hill Regional Career High School in New Haven were “shocked and surprised” by the news. By the end of the day, Gabriela Soriano — along with friends Krishna Patel, Michelle Cortes, and Sofia Soriano — had drafted a petition opposing the action.

In February of this year, Superintendent Dr. Carol Birks revealed to the Board of Education that the New Haven Public Schools system expected a budget shortfall of $30.7 million after the conclusion of the 2019–20 school year. In order to avoid this deficit, school administrators estimated a necessary $12.1 million cut in personnel costs.

Birks announced to teachers on May 29 that she was planning to eliminate 53 teaching positions and reassign teachers to one of the 80 vacant positions in other areas of the school district. Four of those positions were at Hill Regional Career High School, where Gabriela Soriano and her friends are now seniors. While this decision surprised students, Gabriela Soriano indicated that some staff seemed less shocked by the news: “I asked a teacher and she was very indifferent about it. She said, ‘Well, if it’s not them, then it’s us — it happens to everyone. Whatever you do, it’s not going to work.’” This proposal saved the district only $3.6 million, under one-third of the estimated personnel cuts.While some teachers were skeptical of the student efforts, others were supportive, even attending the protests and signing Gabriela Soriano’s petition.

Personnel cuts are not a new phenomenon for New Haven teachers. The most recent budget cuts occurred in May 2018, during which the New Haven Public School system laid off over 1,100 employees on part-time or grant-funded contracts and dismissed 24 teaching professionals — mostly counselors. Teachers and students understand that hard decisions must be made during a budget crisis, but much of the frustration proceeded from who was reassigned. The personnel layoffs in 2018 followed protocols of seniority: younger teachers were laid off or reassigned before older teachers. This time, however, Gabriela Soriano claims that principals were given discretion over which teachers to reassign. Patel explained that that the choice of which teachers to reassign was shocking: “The teachers that our principal chose were ones that would have a big impact. They taught AP classes, they were loved by students… and one of the teachers was our soccer coach and student government advisor.”

Superintendent Birks, however, indicated to the New Haven Register, “The teachers that were identified, they were identified because of the enrollment numbers in their schools.” In an interview with the New Haven Independent, Principal Zakia Parrish declined to discuss her reasoning on the basis of confidentiality, saying, “We’ve made a decision based on things that I cannot share with you because it’s Human-Resources-related.”

Gabriela Soriano indicated the importance of one teacher — James Osborne — to her high school experience. She says of Osborne, “He’s the only teacher in the school that I can genuinely go and talk to because when we have problems, he actually listens… he incorporates what we think a lot, and what we think really matters to him and that’s important for us.” Patel seconded this, then added, “I think he’s someone who supports the students… he’s willing to take the risk in order to support us. If there’s something being done that’s not appropriate for the student body, he will stand up against it.”

In June, Gabriela Soriano, Patel and Sofia Soriano wrote an editorial for the New Haven Independent detailing the importance of their teachers to the academic and social environment of Career. Together, they appealed to the Board of Education to allow the teachers to remain: “It is a shame to see how an integral piece of Career [High School] is being stripped away from us…. Without these teachers, whom will we trust and confide in? Without these teachers, who will take their place in the students’ hearts? Without these teachers, who will look past our tests and grades and see us as individual beings?” The editorial emphasized students’ relationships with the teachers being reassigned, detailing the teachers’ individual accomplishments from their degrees and certifications to their connections with the students themselves.

These four students were not the only ones impacted by the decision; within days, Gabriela Soriano’s petition gained over 1,000 signatures from students, teachers and parents. Continuing the protest, Cortes spearheaded a walkout on June 3 during the last period of the school day. The walkout garnered over a hundred participants, gaining nationwide media attention and commentary by education experts like Diane Ravitch, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education. Ravitch’s blog is well-known by educators, and her endorsement is indicative of support from a larger coalition of education advocates nationwide.

Photographs from the protest see Career students holding signs with slogans like, “WTF: Where’s The Funding?”; “History Has Its Eyes on You”; “Don’t Take Our Teachers”; and “Please Don’t Stop The Music,” a reference to the loss of Career’s only music teacher, Scott McCoy. Cortes explained the angle of the campaign, which focused specifically on student losses: “We weren’t only doing this because we loved the teachers and because we respect them. We were also doing this because we value our education and the education of the incoming freshmen this year and the incoming freshmen next year.”

Cortes’s angle proved effective, especially considering the fact that teacher reassignment indicated negative academic impacts for students, including larger class sizes. Birks’s plan offers little guarantee that the reassigned teachers will teach similar classes. This means that many high schools would have fewer teachers, and, therefore, larger class sizes. Gabriela Soriano added that students were concerned about keeping AP classes: two of the teachers being reassigned taught AP World History, AP Human Geography, and AP Psychology, and the students had already lost access to AP Physics and AP Computer Science. Recent budget constraints have already caused concern about overcrowded classrooms, as the Board of Education voted in 2018 to close one North Haven high school and consolidate the district’s three alternative high schools.

Sofia Soriano explained, “No Board of Education would make it seem like they were the reason students were being deprived of their classes, so by making the protest about the students — that was a reason why it caught attention from the media.”

The same day saw dueling protests from supporters of Birks’s decision. One such advocate was Rev. Boise Kimber, who, along with other Black ministers and school truancy officers, organized a press conference in opposition to the New Haven Public School Advocates’ call for Birks’s resignation immediately following the reassignment news. Kimber has been an advocate for Birks since she took office and advocated for the school district to hire more minority contractors.

In his speech, Kimber accused those protesting Birks’s decision of weaponizing “white privilege,” alleging that those at the demonstration were representing the suburbs rather than New Haven residents. Kimber said, “They didn’t look like us, and they did not represent what this district looks like. I do want to say [that] there are several people who have their own personal agenda against this superintendent and the mayor of our city. Those individuals are leading this charge against the city and against our children.” However, while many protestors had been white — in keeping with the demographic makeup of New Haven teaching staff — ,the four students who organized the student response are all women of color.

The student-led resistance continued after the protests. The four organizers spoke at the Board of Education meeting that followed the protests. The Board, having heard student and teacher concerns, chose to hold a vote to override the Birks’s decision to eliminate teaching positions. Several teachers also spoke up at the meeting, including Chris Brennan, one of the teachers who inspired the organizers. At the meeting, he said, “Last Wednesday, when our students walked out, I believe that was the greatest day in the history of Career High School.” Other teachers, including Mindi Englart, a teacher at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, brought up further academic concerns. She said at the meeting, “Sure I can teach English at any school, but should I? Would that be the best use of my expertise and passion?”

School board members were compelled by the organizers’ speeches, including Board member Ed Joyner, who expressed his disappointment with the decision at the meeting. He said, “The kids themselves are crying to us for relief, and we cannot let one person under any circumstances have the kind of authority to do something that would put kids at risk.” The unity between teachers, students, and school board members against the teacher reassignments illustrates how few people support the personnel changes.

Gabriela Soriano described the suspense as they heard at the end of the meeting that the Board of Education would postpone the vote to save the teaching positions. The next meeting, held two weeks later, the students attended again. The Board chose to save all 53 teaching positions. Reflecting three months later, Gabriela Soriano remarked, “It’s like nothing happened.” Patel added, “All New Haven teachers are assigned where they were previously, unless they chose to retire or resign.”

The process set off a series of events, including increased criticism of Birks’s leadership. Birks’s former Chief Operating Officer, Michael Pinto, issued a complaint detailing allegations of a “hostile work environment.” Within the complaint, he mentioned that Birks encouraged police presence at Career during the student protests and expressed concern that the peaceful protest would devolve into a “riot.”

Cortes responded to the allegation that the protest would become a riot by calling the police presence “unnecessary,” telling the New Haven Independent, “I see where [Birks] comes from; however, we’re just kids. It felt somewhat dehumanizing to me — she treated us as if we were wild animals.”

Still, as the aftermath of their efforts continues to unfold, Gabriela Soriano, Cortes, Patel, and Sofia Soriano are looking to the future for inspiration. Patel emphasized the importance of their protest within this context. “We’re all seniors, and New Haven’s budget deficit is still a problem, so it’s possible that there could be more layoffs in the future,” she explained. “We won’t be able to save them; we need to inspire these kids who are here to step up and not be afraid of what the administration is going to say or what the Board of Education is going to say. Now they know that if we made [saving 53 teaching positions] possible, if we were successful, they can be too.”

Their pragmatism feels optimistic. Gabriela Soriano asserted, “They’re not going to mess with us in the future, because if they do, we’re going to protest again, because we know what power we have.”

WTF: Where’s the Funding? was originally published in The Yale Herald on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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