Giving Voice to Students in Failing Schools

April 03, 2013 at 9:46 am

Rafael Pi Roman interviews Mary Conway-Spiegel, founder of a new organization called Partnership for Student Advocacy that is raising funds and awareness for closing schools in New York City.

Even as Mayor Bloomberg announced on April 2 that 78 new New York schools will open in September, and touted his Administration’s work in creating a record number of schools and programs for students, there’s still concern about the number of schools that have been closing or splitting apart and what happens to their students.

When a school in New York City closes, it goes through a phasing-out period that halts new enrollment by stopping new classes of students from entering. By the time a school officially closes, there is often just a single graduating senior class left. Some new schools have been created  by shutting down larger institutions, like the splitting of Adlai E. Stevenson High School into nine high schools that make up the Adlai E. Stevenson Educational Campus.

As a school transitions, its funding streams are impacted, according to education advocate Mary Conway-Spiegel. Conway-Spiegel founded the Partnership for Student Advocacy (PFSA) to give a voice to the students in failing schools. About six months ago, the group also began the process of raising money to supplement lost programming and courses at schools that are shutting down.

Conway-Spiegel says anything from music education to college visits to advanced coursework can be cut from schools as they are being phased out.

“[A]s it shrinks, it loses money each year– money that can pay for after-school program[s],” Conway-Spiegel told MetroFocus anchor Pi Roman. “[…] Money that can pay for an SAT prep, money that can pay for music, money that can pay for culinary programs, money that enriches and fills in the experience gap which more and more experts know is the key to success in college.”

That insight comes from much first-hand experience. Conway-Spiegel went through the New York City public school system herself and has placed all of her children in public school.  She began as president of a Parent Teacher Association at her children’s school but felt a calling to serve other schools that had fewer resources.

“I also had parents come to me kind of confessing their guilt in not being able to help me,” Conway-Spiegel said. “And then a bell went off and it just occurred to me, that if that’s how parents feel in an engaged community, how must they feel in a disengaged community?”

Right now, her organization is working with Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx. PFSA plans to fund music programs, SAT prep, advanced placement courses and college visits.  According to Gotham Schools, Christopher Columbus is getting a ‘D’  on its Department of Education progress report and faces large budget cuts.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been in office, The New York Times reports that 63 high schools have been phased out and 22 of them in the Bronx. In 2002, Mayor Bloomberg changed the orientation of the Board of Education so that it would be directly accountable to the Office of the Mayor. On his website, the mayor claims this strategy has produced positive results. The website stated that “graduation rates have risen significantly, the Achievement Gap has shrunk, and violence in the classroom is at an all-time low.”

Conway-Spiegel believes that although increases in security and attention are helpful, schools have suffered losses in a different way and that the process itself is what she considers “traumatic.”

“Now are there amazing things going on in those schools?” asked Conway-Spiegel. “Absolutely. Is there personalized attention? Absolutely. But is it a sound and robust education specifically for the students who are going to close the doors on those schools? Not at all.”