For years, parents, teachers, and city officials have been arguing about how to end overcrowded classrooms, the absence of certified librarians, and the lack of basic resources in New York City’s public schools. As far back as 2008, then–City Councilmember Gale Brewer was talking about these problems. Brewer has since been elected Manhattan borough president. Yet not much has changed.
Now a group of students want to stop the demolition-by-neglect. Hoping to light a fire under the adults who have so far failed them, the high schoolers are staging a protest — on an actual stage, starting this Wednesday, March 23, at the Teachers College at Columbia University.
A group of students from three high schools in the city wrote and star in 10467, a fifty-minute play about the educational inequities they’ve faced as a result of the city’s failure to act. With joint support from Epic Theatre Ensemble and the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, more than two dozen students will show, through scenes depicting day-to-day experiences, original rap songs, and monologues, the direct impact violations of their constitutionally guaranteed educational rights have had on them.
The play, which premiered at the National Black Theater in Harlem in August, makes no effort to hide how personal the problem is: The title comes from the zip code for the Bronx School for Writing and Communication Arts, which many of the students who will perform attend. (Students also come from the Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts in Harlem and the Chelsea Career and Technical High School.)
For Raymond Sanchez, a junior at the Bronx School who dreams of becoming an actor or historian, the performance involves acting out what he lives with each day at school.
“I’m performing onstage the concerns I see in my school,” he says. Though he plays the part of a member of the New York State Board of Regents, he describes another student in the play “who goes to the teacher pleading for help, a summary of the lesson, because he wasn’t able to understand due to a disability. But the teacher is unwilling or unable to accommodate him…. It’s illustrative of the inability our schools have to make special accommodations for students who might need them and, in a sense, showing that feeling of abandonment.”
Sanchez, sixteen, adds that the play addresses the lack of funding head-on. He often sees students who don’t have textbooks for classes, or even paper and pencils — scenarios he hopes the play might help rectify.
“These violations of students’ rights have been happening so long, and it’s so pervasive and widespread, that over time people have come to accept that this is just the way it is,” says Joe Rogers, of the Teachers College’s Campaign for Educational Equity. “Even a lot of educators we talked to had this sort of scarcity framework and mindset, where it was hard for them to even imagine what it would look like to have all the things their students were entitled to.”
A study by the Harlem Council of Elders, a nonprofit that advocates for educational needs of youth in the neighborhood, found that sixteen out of seventeen schools in Harlem’s District 5 do not have certified school librarians at the middle- and high-school levels.
“And it’s not just [that district] — it’s in many communities serving mostly black or brown children throughout the city,” adds Rogers.
Some schools have one staff nurse for two thousand children; some have elementary school children sharing bathrooms with high school students. Things are so bad at some schools that student counseling sessions are being held in stairwells. “They’re talking about sensitive issues where other people who shouldn’t be hearing these things are hearing them — and that’s a violation — all for lack of appropriate space,” says Rogers. The play has the students asking audiences, “Why do we stand down when we should stand up in the battle against educational injustice?”
For the past decade, and even following a landmark court ruling in 2006 requiring the state to increase funding for public education, schools in the poorest districts still face inadequate instructional support and a paucity of space and resources.
Amid this, the adults have been talking — and talking — about how to fix things.
Two weeks ago, Brewer held a public hearing in West Harlem on school overcrowding. Parents, educators, community leaders, and students spoke out that night. At the hearing, Brewer called on Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature to “step up and give New York City’s children what they’re owed.” In the proposed state budget, New York City might get hundreds of millions in increased school aid, she said. Under the case settlement from 2006, the state of New York owes billions more to public schools.
“The issue is the recommendations from Albany that were passed by a court have not been implemented,” Brewer told the Voice in an interview after the hearing. “We would like to see more classrooms, more schools.” As things stand now, she added, there are many classes being held in school gyms “because you have so many kids in the school.”
As bureaucrats plod along, the students plan to keep working: After the show at Columbia, the students will stage it for the American Educational Research Association in Washington, D.C., on April 9. Beyond just informing New Yorkers about the negative consequences that result from the lack of educational equity, the play, Rogers believes, communicates the students’ outrage — and that will be what finally moves politicians.
“People are going to get angry, as they should, and they’re not going to accept what they’ve been lacking for decades upon decades in the city.”