A District 6 town hall meeting with Chancellor Dennis Walcott got a little unruly last night in the auditorium of Washington Heights’ P.S.48, to the point where both Walcott and Judith Amaro, president of District 6’s Community Education Council, had to ask audience members to be respectful.
“I get it, I get it,” Amaro told her community, amid jeers. “But we’re going to do this respectfully because regardless of what’s going on, there are visitors. Here in District 6, we treat our visitors right.”
The hostility was not funneled towards a specific issue, as was the case with last week’s town hall in District 23, where parents focused the agenda on school closures. Nor was it so loud that the meeting could not proceed, as when a group of protesters derailed a Department of Education meeting about new curriculum standards. But, it touched on multiple issues ranging from colocations to instruction to budget cuts.
Early in the meeting, the CEC quickly clicked through a powerpoint presentation overviewing their district’s demographic and academic profile. More than a third of K – 8 students are English Language Learners, almost ninety percent receive free or reduced lunch, the majority of students are Hispanic and black.
“You will never, ever hear me single out poor children or children of color as being children that are different. I’m a firm believer that all our students can learn and can learn at high levels,” Walcott said later in the meeting. “You will never, ever hear me make excuses about what a student can or can’t do because of his background “
Before the community took the mic, the CEC presented six sweeping questions of their own to be answered by Walcott and his delegation of DOE employees, who represented offices such as English Language Learners and Portfolio Management. Their questions ran the gamut from “What makes a good school?” (strong leadership, qualified teachers, involved parents) to “What plans do you have for our ELL students?” (native language programs, grants for dual language programs).
When Walcott attempted to answer a question about tightening budgets within schools by mentioning the salary steps built into the United Federation of Teachers’ contract, he was met with rogue shouts of “Are you kidding me right now?” and “Don’t try to put the budget on the teachers!” When he touched on the idea of colocations and of rising class sizes, the response was similar.
The most cohesive cry of the evening was for Mott Hall, Washington Heights’ 6-8 gifted and talented school, to be given the opportunity to expand into a new space. Several parents spoke and others held up blue and yellow painted signs that read “27 years is long enough,” referring to their lengthy stay in their temporary home, a converted convent.
“What happened to Mott Hall?” Belkis Poche, the parent of an 8th grade Mott Hall student, asked Walcott. “Nobody come or pay attention to Mott Hall…We need answers.”
With an unwavering calmness, Walcott committed to look deeper into the questions posed to him, but he also reminded the community of what is and is not feasible in the current economic climate. “You can be upset, you can make noises and all the other pieces that go along with that, but the one thing I try to do is be very honest at the town hall meetings that I have with folks and not just say something just to say it, knowing that I can’t deliver on it,” he said.
The most amiable moment of the evening was when audience members lauded Walcott for his feat of finishing the ING New York City marathon.
Amaro noted that his tenacity in meeting such a challenge could be a sign of what could be done within their community.
“On that note – meeting goals that are impossible – we’re going to sit down and make all our goals in District 6 possible,” Amaro said.