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Occupy the Education System: Students, Teachers and Parents Find New Spirit and Challenge the Attack on Public Schools

In the past couple of weeks, Occupy Wall Street has spurred dedicated education activists into some of the most innovative and inspiring actions.

Mouse over and click the photographs in this story and you can listen to audio recordings as well.

“I work hard, but my grades don't matter. But I have a voice and I will be heard!”

Jordan is 13, and she's speaking to a crowd of mostly adults, sitting on the granite steps of the New York City Department of Education at Tweed Hall. Or rather, she is speaking through them, as her words echo through the people's mic used at Occupy Wall Street just few blocks south from where she's speaking.

Tonight the steps of the DOE themselves have been occupied and are packed with teachers, students, parents, and supporters holding a general assembly on the state of public education in New York.

Jordan was far from the only student to speak. A young girl holding up one end of a sign that read “Nothing about us, without us, is for us!” declared “I am angry! I am PISSED! And I want JUSTICE!” in ringing tones, and Devan, a poet, read a poem over the people's mic.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this event was the way in which it brought together those who might be considered adversaries in a conversation about the things they feel are hurting schools. 

Students spoke about the pressure of high-stakes testing, but also of their teachers' hard work and low pay. Teachers worried that their students were not learning because they were cramming for tests, and parents called for teachers to be supported, not threatened.

Rosie Frascella, a teacher and one of the organizers of this general assembly, told me before the event happened that invitations to speak had been issued to Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

“If Chancellor Walcott and Bloomberg choose to show up, they will have the same opportunity to speak as all of us, and to show them what a democratic process looks like, because obviously they don't know,” she said.

The Fight in New York

The first Occupy the Department of Education (Occupy the DOE) action took place on October 25 at the Panel for Educational Policy's regular public meeting where teachers, parents and students are invited to speak to the city's education policymakers—but on the policymakers' terms.

“The PEP represents the struggle of OWS in many ways. The PEP is essentially mayoral control, the mayor appoints eight out of 13 panelists, so whatever Bloomberg decides, he makes sure that his panelists vote in alliance with his beliefs. It's very clear who the 1 percent is in education: Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott. The rest of us feel like the 99 percent: teachers, students, and parents,” Frascella said.

Brian Jones, a teacher at Brooklyn's PS 261, told me there was intense frustration with the PEP among parents and teachers who had gone to many meetings and testified through the approved channels, only to have their voices ignored. “When they tried to close the 19 schools people testified until four in the morning, hundreds testified, and the PEP of course votes with the mayor,” he said. “We’re going through these motions of democracy even though what stands behind it is a dictatorship.”

 The discussion that night was supposed to have been on new standards to be implemented in the schools. “We should’ve had the discussion before the implementation of such standards,” Jones said. “These standards were funded by Bill Gates. The guy who wrote them is not even a teacher. it’s like having a Surgeon General who never practiced medicine.”