By Jordan Davidson
Special to DNAinfo.com New York
INWOOD — Parents, teachers and community activists packed a middle school auditorium Thursday night to offer solutions to the problems in Northern Manhattan’s public schools, while also speaking out against a controversial proposal to eliminate elementary school zones in Upper Manhattan.
City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez hosted the public meeting at I.S. 52 in Inwood in response to the uproar over the de-zoning proposal in District 6, which covers Washington Heights, Inwood and northwest Harlem.
"I want to fight to provide every student with a quality education,” Rodriguez said. “How can we build that in Northern Manhattan, river to river?”
Rodriguez announced plans to form a coalition of uptown parents to discuss issues including a lack of parent involvement in schools, a shortage of arts funding and an overwhelming focus on high-stakes standardized tests.
“Parents don’t feel empowered,” said Margaret Peeler, secretary of a group of uptown parent teacher association presidents. “If there’s a problem going on in their school, they don’t feel empowered to speak up about it.”
Kesi Foster, who has worked as a tutor at George Washington High School in Washington Heights, said the city needs to do more to involve parents.
“The parents are the foundation of any school,” Foster said. “Right now the Department of Education isn’t doing enough to engage schools.”
Others noted that a strong PTA is essential to a school's success.
"If your PTA knows what to do, your school thrives,” said Miriam Aristy-Farer, a P.S. 153 parent. “If not, your school sinks.”
Christian Guerrero, co-founder of Inwood Academy for Leadership Charter School, said charter schools face the same issues as the community's public schools.
"Parent engagement is a problem,” Guerrero said. “We’ve been able to reach the educated because they e-mail, but not the majority. We need to reach out to the majority."
Kristin Borhofen, president of the P.S. 278 PTA, asked that Rodriguez’s proposed coalition of parents share the best practices of highly functional PTAs throughout the district. She also asked that the coalition offer strategies for grant writing and for parent-to-parent coaching.
Parents also called for more funding for art, music and theater classes, to give their children a well-rounded education.
“Schools need grant writers,” said Aristy-Farer, a P.S. 153 parent. “It’s not sustainable to expect parents to fund arts and theater.”
Gretchen Mergenthaler, an uptown parent, agreed.
“Kids want to go to school for art and music and theater,” Mergenthaler said. “This should be a mandatory part of all curriculums.”
She asked for one art, music and theater teacher for every 300 kids in a school building.
Several speakers at the meeting also railed against the push to scrap Upper Manhattan’s school zones, which would allow.
The night’s first speaker, Kenneth Barr, received uproarious applause when he announced his candidacy for the District 6 Community Education Council so he could vote against the de-zoning proposal.
Debby Nabavian, a P.S. 187 parent, spoke passionately against the private marketing campaign that sought to convince parents to support de-zoning.
“They are a Goliath,” she said, receiving the loudest ovation of the night. “There are people who tried to divide us. And I’ve got to tell you, we are all together.”
Rodriguez said he was optimistic that parents working together could create real changes in the neighborhood.
“Make no mistake,” Rodriguez said. “The will is there. Northern Manhattan is united in working together to improve education. ”