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The Public School Boycott

Just after 1pm on Monday, as the District Parent Coordinating Council’s school boycott rally, begun around noon, continued in front of Buffalo City Hall, local National Public Radio station WBFO was airing the regularly scheduled Capitol Pressroom, and, coincidentally, the day’s topic was urban school failures in the state’s five biggest cities, including, of course, Buffalo.

Back on Niagara Square, from City Hall’s steps, speaker after speaker had been addressing the Buffalo schools’ alleged gross deficiencies, but in a distinctly different manner. On Capitol Pressroom, the conversation was about causal relationships and ranking the impacts of social and psychological factors. On City Hall’s steps the frequently loud remarks delivered a “I’m mad as hell and I’m not taking it any more!” message, including those of former New York Assembly Deputy Speaker Arthur O. Eve. But Eve also struck a more faith-based note, quoting Deuteronomy 31:18: “Call on Him in our hour of great need.”

DPCC vice president and event organizer Samuel Radford III introduced Eve, the program’s honorary chairman, as a community “elder.” He may have meant this respectfully, although Eve’s comment in the morning’s Buffalo News that he personally preferred prayer meetings to school boycotts may not have sat well with Radford and some of his colleagues.

Eve called for a day of prayer about the schools sometime next month when “the pastors and body of Christ will come together,” at which point the loud staccato African drumming of a man near the mic punctuated this call. The event started on a revivalist note and kept that spirit for much of its length.

But to some extent, the spirit up at the podium was more vibrant than it was in the crowd around and below it. The next day, the Buffalo News estimated its size at around 300, but it looked smaller, probably no more than 150, if that, particularly if the substantial contingent of media people and the smaller proportion of curious city employees were subtracted. Publicity for both the half-day school boycott—there was only a half day of school scheduled Monday—and the rally had been profuse. On Monday morning, the News announced in a front-page headline that these actions had attracted the “attention of [the] nation,” including “a Rochester affiliate of National Public Radio” and “a television crew from California.”

Eve evidently wasn’t the only one harboring reservations about keeping kids out of school. On Tuesday, the News’ Mary Pasciak reported that school absences had added only about eight percent to the total absent the previous Monday, which was also a half-day in the schools. (The percentages were significantly higher at the city’s lowest-achieving schools, which were the target of Radford and the other organizers, as they’ve made clear.) At True Bethel Baptist Church on East Ferry, the congregation presided over by Ellicott District Councilman Darius Pridgen, who spoke at City Hall, only five students were in a supervised setting instead of school, according to a woman who identified herself as “Anita,” and who didn’t keep her own child out of school that day.

There were other muted but discernible notes of reservation and discord, or at least complexity, amid the spirited denunciations of the schools’ failures and calls for unity. Jim Anderson, representing the Alliance for Quality Education—which joined in a successful state lawsuit for increased school funding several years ago—announced his opposition to Assemblywoman Crystal Stokes-People’s proposed “parent-trigger” legislation, which would make it much easier for city parents to demand the creation of charter schools, an idea that won loud applause at a large May 3 meeting led by Radford and the parents council.

And at least some of those gathered before City Hall hadn’t come in support of the organizers’ sentiments and goals. Kimberly Kalliszewski, a third-grade teacher in the district, bore a large sign which read, in part, “Don’t Blame Me,” an allusion to lack of parent involvement, she explained in a brief interview. (She was soon involved in a civil but pronounced disagreement with a dissenting parent.)

Up on the City Hall steps, Radford was loudly saying that the school authorities seemed to “have no clear plan for how we can turn our school system around.” Even at this protest, there were indications that it was a lot easier to highlight the school district’s lack of success than to formulate generally acceptable solutions.

george sax

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