NEW YORK -- On Monday evening, about 200 students, parents, school aides and educators associated with Occupy Wall Street congregated on the steps of the New York City Department of Education in lower Manhattan to "occupy the DOE."
The crowd vented its frustrations about K-12 education in the form of a General Assembly, the consensus-building method Occupy Wall Street protesters originated in Zuccotti Park. The event was the first official General Assembly held on education, beginning what organizers said they hoped would become a recurring series of events.
The protesters aired their concerns about charter schools, mayoral control of schools, budget cuts and standardized tests. "I'm Jordan, I'm 13, and there's no point in the ELA," a student said about the English Language Arts assessment, an exam given to students across grades. "I work hard and my grades don't matter." Using the OWS technique known as "the people's mic," the crowd repeated each phrase in order to amplify it.
A Brooklyn teacher called for an end to the city's testing system. "These test scores are used to make decisions," she said. "If we can find a way to undermine these tests, we can undermine their entire system."
Throughout the evening, a phalanx of what appeared to be about 15 cops on motorcycles surveyed the area, warning the crowd to stay off the sidewalk and on the steps.
Organizers say the governance structure of New York City's public schools is closely linked to Occupy Wall Street's broader concerns about economic inequity, citing what they see as a privatization of public education. Mayor Michael Bloomberg runs the city's schools through a board known as the Panel for Educational Policy, the majority of whose members he appointed. Critics of mayoral control assert that the board functions as a rubber stamp for Bloomberg's preferred policies, eroding democratic processes.
"What we're seeing with mayoral control, it's still part of the one percent versus ninety nine percent type of narrative," Occupy Wall Street organizer and English teacher Kelley Wolcott said in an interview. "We have a mayor who is known for being in the top 20 wealthiest people in the country, who is singlehandedly dictating the reforms that come through the school systems without a lot of input."
"There's no way to intervene once a decision has been made," Wolcott continued. "Someone has accrued too much power in decision-making in one office and is very disconnected from the needs in the people in schools and communities but presumes to know what's better for us based upon his status."
Bloomberg's office declined to respond to the protesters' assertions.
Wolcott helped originate Occupy Wall Street's public-education arm, convening a committee that became known as "Occupy the DOE" in late October after the group disrupted a Department of Education meeting by using the people's mic as Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott began to speak. The meeting, intended as an informational session for parents, disbanded into smaller classrooms as the protesters held their ground.
Though the protesters invited Walcott to the Monday's General Assembly, he did not attend.
Former DOE employees used the platform to highlight problems they saw inside the system. "I used to work in this building and it was a disaster," one said. "It was a travesty. I worked here for a year, and within one year they reorganized it four times."
High school students also sounded off. "We demand a dismantling of Bloomberg's panel for educational policy," one said into the people's mic. "We demand a new 13-member community board to run our public schools comprised of parents, educators, education experts, community members and a minimum of five student representatives."
Another student described how the DOE's budget cuts stripped his Bronx school of resources such as textbooks, librarians and school aides -- and then added it to the city's list of failing schools.
"I'm tired of being told that my school is failing. It is the Department of Education that has failed to give my students what they need to succeed," a teacher yelled. "If our banks fail, they get bailouts. If our schools fail, they get closed, or charter co-locations ... It is time that we hold the one percent accountable."
The protesters disbanded at 7:00 p.m., with plans to continue the General Assembly on Sunday and perhaps break out into working groups. Occupy the DOE meets Sundays at noon at 60 Wall Street.
Teachers across the country have joined with Occupy events to further their causes, including in Boston, Milwaukee and California.
Video and photo courtesy of Gotham Schools.