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PODCAST: Advocating for Schools After Overcrowding Hits Home

By Emily Frost | June 2, 2015 8:10am
 Joe Fiordaliso talked with DNAinfo about parenting and schools on the Upper West Side. 
Joe Fiordaliso
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Like many people, Joe Fiordaliso got involved in education advocacy when a local issue affected his family.

In 2010, Fiordaliso's daughter was wait-listed at her local school, P.S. 199, leading to months of anxiety about where she'd end up.

He quickly joined the neighborhood's local education advocacy board — Community Education Council 3 — to push for solutions to overcrowding and now serves as president. 

Along the way, Fiordaliso said he's seen schools flounder and improve, and helped parents and principals handle charter school co-locations and overcrowding.

DNAinfo sat down with Fiordaliso this week to talk about local schools and solutions to their biggest obstacles on the path to success.

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Emily: To start off, Joe, why do you live on the Upper West Side and why this neighborhood and not another neighborhood?

Joe: When I was looking for a place to raise a family I was drawn to the Upper West Side because it seemed to have the best of everything that New York City offers. It offers the hustle and bustle, it offers the proximity to museums and the best cultural institutions in the world, but it’s also at its base a collection of small, close-knit neighborhoods. It’s difficult perhaps for someone in the suburbs to understand how we could live in small, close-knit neighborhoods in the middle of the biggest city and the most vibrant city in the world, but it’s true.

Many of those neighborhoods are bifurcated along school lines and surrounding neighborhood and community schools. It was a natural choice for us when we were looking for a place to raise our children. We were both committed to raising our children in the city and we’ve made it work in large part because of the vibrancy of those neighborhoods and the fact that they are really like I said at their base small, close-knit communities.

Emily: You are the president of the CEC. Some people don’t even know what the CEC stands for, the Communication Education Council. What is the CEC and what does it do?

Joe: It’s a question I get all the time. It’s a question I often get from PTA leaders and folks who are engaged actively in their own schools. In short the Community Education Council is an elected body of advocates for parents and school children in our district. CEC 3 represents 32 elementary middle schools along the West Side of Manhattan really from Lincoln Center to the Apollo Theater. We’ve got a richly diverse district, a geographically large district and one that is advocating for students throughout.

Emily: It’s a volunteer body and how did you get involved?

Joe: We are elected officials, but we are volunteers, as you point out, and for many of us this is a passion and it’s a labor of love. For me I first got involved as a grassroots advocate and activist in 2010 when my own eldest daughter found herself on the waitlist for our neighborhood school. Even though we could look out our bedroom window and look at the school itself, we were on the waitlist. We were number 52 on a waitlist of 70.

I couldn’t quite understand how that was possible in a city like New York or frankly any town or municipality that I’ve ever been familiar with. A waitlist for your neighborhood public school is not something that I’ve ever encountered before and so I was troubled by that. I felt that when I decided to live in the city and raise my children in the city I entered into a compact with the city where the city had certain responsibilities to me and my family, one of which was to provide my child with a seat at her neighborhood school.

Emily: Did you move specifically to that area for that school, which was P.S. 199, right?

Joe: Honestly, yeah, it is P.S. 199 and it would probably add to the richness of my narrative and of the story to say that yes, we expressly moved to the neighborhood just to be approximate to 199 and for our children to go there, but that wasn’t the case. Frankly, we knew that we wanted to be on the Upper West Side. I don’t know that we were looking at catchment lines when we decided to move into the apartment that we did. We were happily and luckily in that district and that happiness and fortunate feeling turned to dismay when we realized that there was a better than even chance that we would not be able to send our children to that school.

That was frustrating and so I decided to get involved. I found myself leading a group of 70 or 80 parents who were in the similar situation as me advocating for viable options for our kids. That ultimately morphed into an effort to establish P.S. 452, which is an elementary school on the Upper West Side which was established with the express purpose of alleviating overcrowding at some of our most historically overcrowded schools, namely P.S. 199 and P.S. 87.

Emily: That was a new school that was formed?

Joe: It was a new school that was formed and it’s certainly something I’m very, very proud of and I want to make sure I don’t claim more credit than I’m due there. I was a part of a large group of folks who advocated very, very passionately and very, very effectively, including the CEC at that time, including parent leaders, elected officials. I was one small voice adding to the cacophony of voices calling for that new school. Even at that time, knowing as little as I did about the dynamics of a school I knew that it wasn’t going to work for P.S. 199 to shoehorn even more kids into that school. I felt we needed another solution as a community, others did as well, and that’s what led us to fight for the creation of P.S. 452. It’s also what led us subsequently to fight for the creation of P.S. 342, the Riverside South School.

Emily: After that issue resolved itself, you stayed on the CEC?

Joe: To be clear I was not on the CEC at that time.

Emily: Okay.

Joe: My daughter, they made it down to her spot on the waitlist literally a week before school started, which we were obviously grateful for. We were pleased to be able to go to the school that was literally across the street from our apartment. That was great, but I have to say that what motivated me to get even more involved and ultimately seek a position on the CEC was the frustration at the process. The stress and anxiety that my child’s mother and I felt going through this process was unacceptable. The uncertainty that my five year old undoubtedly experienced was equally unacceptable. Many other children in a similar situation to hers were already participating in play dates with their soon-to-be classmates, getting to know their school, walking past it every day and saying ‘yeah, that’s going to be my school in September.’

Emily: Taking the tour...

Joe: Put yourself in my shoes for a moment. I wasn’t able to say those things to my five year old. We would play in the playground and she’d say ‘daddy, am I going to go to that school in September?’ What do you say to your child? You want to say yes, but you don’t want to disappoint them, you’re in a tough spot. Frankly, the experience left a sour taste in my mouth and it motivated me to get more actively engaged.

Emily: It’s 2015, you’re still volunteering. What do you hope the CEC represents for parents? Is it a place where they can come with their issues? What are the meetings like for people who have never been to them?

Joe: No issue is too small. If a parent has an issue of concern that they want to bring to us that they think we can lend a helpful voice, an advocacy voice, to try and get something done on their behalf, then my personal belief is that we’ve got a responsibility to try to do it. Now there are a range of issues that we deal with on the CEC. Some are high level policy issues that are being debated in the halls of Congress as well as the quarters of Albany.

Some are local constituent issues that may seem small to some, but frankly have a big impact on the quality of our learning environment for our children. There are issues as large as the co-location of charter schools in many of our public school buildings and the impacts that that has. Overcrowding issues are top tier issues, big picture policy issues that we also deal with. It really runs the gamut. We have a responsibility to be responsive to anyone who raises an issue of concern before us and see how we can be helpful.

Emily: It sounds like some of the work that you do is putting out fires. Then there are broader goals that you have. What are some of those goals?

Joe: We developed a plan a couple of years ago at the start of our current term that provided a roadmap for us as a council. One of those was certainly overcrowding. We’ve got serious, serious overcrowding in certain parts of this district and we need to be constantly vigilant and taking steps to make sure that our schools are not overcrowded. As I mentioned before the co-location of charter schools in public school spaces is another troubling issue. In many ways the district 3 has been Ground Zero for charter co-location over the last number of years.

Let me pause for a moment and say that I’m not opposed to charter schools as being part of the equation when it comes to educating our kids. What I am opposed to, however, is the way that charter schools have been allowed to proliferate and proceed without any accountability and without any regard for their host schools and their neighborhoods and that’s what I have a serious problem with. When charter schools are allowed to come in and take over a public school building and cherry pick resources and the best rooms and the best spaces and leave the district community school with the scraps, that’s not consistent with my vision of how schools should co-exist.

When a charter school’s allowed to come in and cherry pick the best students and kick out all the rest who they think they can’t cut it that’s not my vision for how schools ought to be able to co-exist. When special need students, severely autistic special need students are forced to take OT and PT in hallways because the charter school that they’re co-located with has been allowed to cherry pick all the best spaces and force those children out into hallways, children with serious and severe sensory issues, that is unconscionable to me.

Emily: You’ve seen examples of that? Because when I spoke with Upper West Success they described it more as a roommate situation.

Joe: To liken the relationship to two roommates, my goodness, I don’t know what universe Upper West Success is living in if they … Unless they’re talking about the movie "Single White Female," I can’t imagine a roommate relationship that is apt to what we’ve seen on the Upper West Side with regard to charter school co-locations. I’ll single out P.S. 149 as an example and that’s a school that has been abused through its relationship with certain charter school networks.

Frankly, again talk about the only auditorium space in P.S. 149, the only space, assembly space, the only performance space for the children of P.S. 149 and P.S. 811 being co-opted by the charter school network that’s located in that building and used for storage so much so that the school itself wasn’t even able to hold performances or assemblies in that school. That’s unacceptable. I don’t know whether it’s sheer ignorance or blatant disregard, but it frankly doesn’t matter. Whether we like it or not these charter schools have been given an amazingly generous opportunity to go in and use public school spaces. Whether we agree with that or not it’s happening, okay. One would think that there would be a basic level of appreciation for that and the most barest, the most basic level of gratitude and neighborly regard shown for these host schools. Frankly, we haven’t seen it.

You brought up the Success Charter Network, so let’s stay with that because I don’t want to paint all charters with one broad brush. Since you raised Success Charters Network, I cannot think of one example in my entire experience as a parent in the Upper West Side, in any school in District 3, where the relationship between Success Academy Charter Network and the neighborhood community school has been anything short of antagonistic, volatile, unwelcoming, disregarding of the most basic tenants of consideration. I could go on and on. I think CEC has been going on and on for a number of years about this. We’ve been ringing this alarm bell for many, many years and it’s time that folks woke up and saw what’s really going on in parts of our community.

Emily: Obviously, some schools on the Upper West Side are succeeding tremendously; others are not doing as well. What do you think can be done to help those schools and which schools are not succeeding?

Joe: I think there are a number of reasons why some schools are more successful than others. I think the dynamism and vigor of the leader of a school matters quite a bit. I think leadership comes from the top and I think it sets the tone. We’re fortunate to have many, many dynamic principals in District 3, and so I think that contributes heavily. I think the success of a school to a certain extent is directly proportional to the level of activity of its parent body. I think activist parent bodies hold principals and teachers accountable and everyone steps up their game as a result.

I also believe that in certain parts of the district, charter co-locations, have been harmful to certain schools. Frankly, whether they’re co-located or not, I think when charter schools are allowed to cherry pick the best students and expel others that it doesn’t believe meet its own internal and mysterious metric for success, I think that places an undue burden on the neighborhood community school. It makes it that much more difficult for it to succeed. I think that has a corresponding effect on morale of teachers, morale of parents. It robs those community schools of a sense of community and I think those things all play into the success or perceived success of a school.

I’ve seen charters be encouraged to be a replacement for what critics of public schools have termed ‘failing schools’ and I don’t think that’s right. I think there ought to be a complimentary relationship, not an antagonistic one and that’s unfortunately what we’ve seen. I believe that that relationship and the way that those many charters have been allowed to proliferate without any accountability, robbing resources and cherry picking students, have had a direct impact on many of our community schools particularly in the northern part of the district to succeed.

I feel that if they had been given the proper level of resources and tools that we’d see them thriving more than we see that now. I think it’s enormously difficult for a school and a principal to develop any consistency, to develop a loyal, engaged parent body to build any record of success when that school’s under constant threat of closure. That’s just not fair. We’re tying one arm behind our schools and our principals’ backs when we do that and it’s just not right.

Emily: Pivoting a little bit. You talked about zoning earlier. In one of my earlier podcasts I spoke with a resident who believes in this way of zoning schools called ‘controlled choice,’ where rather than just basing where a child goes to school on geography, it’s based on race, class, special needs status, other factors go into the mix. Maybe a student instead of going to the school next door would go to a different school, so that there was a more diverse mix at all of the schools in a district. I wanted to get your thoughts on that.

Joe: First, I’ll start by respectfully disagreeing with your notion that it’s a new way of zoning. It is the elimination of zoning. For someone who believes strongly in the idea of community schools as I do, I have a real concern with the elimination of zoning for District 3. I think it would be problematic. I believe that neighborhood community schools build a sense of community. They build a close-knit network of families, families that you see walking to do errands on Saturdays and the same way that you see them walking to drop off and pick up at school during school days.

I think you lose a lot of that if you eliminate zones and you’ve got children coming from throughout the district. Perhaps that works at the middle school level, perhaps that works at the high school level, but when you’re talking about elementary school and that’s precisely what we’re talking about here when proponents of controlled choice are putting forth this idea, I have a real concern about that. I have a concern about it from the standpoint of loss of community. I have a concern about it from the standpoint of sheer logistics. The thought of transporting my five-year-old kindergartener 70 blocks to go to kindergarten is somewhat difficult for me to wrap my arms around. I don’t see how you can do something like controlled choice in District 3 without forced bussing.

If the intent of a controlled choice model is simply to force the integration of schools ,then I would say it has worked — where it’s been implemented it has worked. You can only judge controlled choice as a success if you measure it based on that one metric. The results when one looks at academic achievement in schools where controlled choice has been implemented, the results are mixed. In Cambridge, which is widely held as the birthplace of controlled choice, you actually saw academic achievement go down. I’m not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater and integrate at the expense of academic achievement. I want to do both, frankly, and I think we can.

Emily: Was that loss of achievement across all schools, or was it just some schools that used to be more excellent went down?

Joe: Based on my own reading, schools where academic achievement was expected to rise did not see that increase. Now if you want to talk about diversity, let’s talk about diversity. I do believe we’ve got a very rich, diverse district, but that diversity is concentrated in certain areas of the district. I find that problematic. I believe that we should do something about the diversity of our district. We can and should do more to integrate our schools. I don’t believe that we should do that by implementing controlled choice. I believe that at the end of the day what we’re talking about here is a real estate issue.

The city in my own estimation has allowed real estate developers for years and years and years to put up new residential developments without holding their feet to the fire and requiring substantial amounts of affordable housing units to go up in those towers. They also, by the way, have not required them to build schools in those new developments, which contributes to the overall crowding situation we see in many parts of the Upper West Side.

I think developers have gotten a free ride for a long time and they ought to be required to make some fair share contributions to their community. They’re required to … Developers are certainly required to make upgrades to sewer systems when they put up a new development. They’re required to put in curb cuts, repair the street when they open it up to put in all their infrastructure below the building. Why aren’t they required to put in the essential city resource that is school seats? Why aren’t they required to put in affordable housing units in any substantial percentage? If they were we wouldn’t have overcrowding and we would have a more diverse district.

Emily: I’m thinking about the situation at P.S. 199 right now where once again there’s a waitlist for parents who didn’t get into the school. They’ve been offered seats at P.S. 191, but a lot of them are saying that they don’t want to go to that school. Do you think that that school has an image problem? Then in terms of diversity you’ve got P.S. 191, a lot of students of color, P.S. 199, not so much. You’ve got this stark divide down there.

Joe: I’ll answer your first question first. I think that for many years P.S. 191, the Museum Magnet School, had a reputation issue. I think it was largely undeserved. I think it was not helped by the Department of Education under the prior administration’s grading systems of schools, progress reports, et cetera, et cetera, which provide a very narrowly focused gauge of a school’s quality in terms of academics. I have a real big problem with progress reports and grading systems of schools because some parents will just look at them and they’ll see a grade, a particular grade, and they will therefore conclude that a school is not good. They will look at a percentage of Title 1 students and they will determine that that school is not good.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. I have a real problem with the reputation that a school has often times received as a result of those progress reports because I don’t think it shows the true quality and characteristics of a school. I am thrilled to support P.S. 191, the Museum Magnet School. It’s an excellent school, it has a dynamic new principal in Lauren Keville. She’s a rising star in District 3 and she has done an enormous amount of work in an extraordinarily short amount of time to raise the image and quality of that school. P.S. 191 has a dynamic and involved and passionate PTA leadership who is likewise really engaged and really championed that school.

Our Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, I am grateful to her unwavering and aggressive support for that school including the multimedia lab at that school, which was funded through her efforts, which recently opened just a few short months ago. I think bringing that type of resource to the Museum Magnet School is going to finally ameliorate any of the last vestiges of a reputation issue that that school experienced. My bold prediction — and I better be right since I’m on the record and I’m on tape right now — my bold prediction is that the Museum Magnet School is going to be talked about in the same vein as P.S. 87 and P.S. 199 and P.S. 9 within three years.

In terms of your second question, the different makeup of 191 versus 199 and a different demography, again I’ll go back to what I said before. I think you’re dealing to a certain extent with a real estate issue. Some of the developments that are immediately adjacent to 191 which it serves, which are not present at 199, I think leads to this notion that schools are different. Yes, they are different and I would like them to both be more similar and I think through some of the measures that I talked about I think we can get there.

Emily: You have a zoning committee right now. Is that something that they’re looking at possibly changing the district lines there, so that you don’t have such a long waitlist for 199 and so many open spots at 191?

Joe: We established a zoning committee several months ago and as you recall the zoning lines are one of the few areas where we do have statutory authority. All zoning matters must be approved by my council. Yes, that is certainly one of the issues that this zoning committee is looking at. I don’t think we’re doing the district service by embarking on a zoning process that only addresses issues, zoning issues, for two or three or four schools. We ought to be looking at the northern part of the district as well.

What have we seen in the northern part of the district in recent years? We’ve seen underenrollment. That underenrollment has made those schools right for charter infiltration. What steps can we take as a community education council in the context of a zoning process to shift those zone lines to fill those schools? I was dismayed by the Department of Education’s decision last year to shoehorn another kindergarten class into P.S, 199, a school that was already at a 120 percent of its own capacity. I was also dismayed because I feel that decision effectively cut 191 from under its own knees.

I feel that the department could have planted its flag in the ground and said we support 191, we want to fill that school. We’re going to give it all the tools and the resources to succeed and it’s a great school. Instead they caved to parent pressure and they implicitly sent the message that yes, 199 is a better school than 191 and you can go to 199 even it means shoehorning more kids into the school, even it means accepting lunchtimes that start at 10:30 in the morning, even though it means kids get fewer opportunities for art, music, gym, science. I value the working relationship with the Department of Education. I value the working relationship with our superintendent, but on this one they got it wrong and, unfortunately, our district is paying the price.

My goal as president is to make sure that that doesn’t happen again and so we’re going to do everything we can in the context of a zoning process to make sure that we have control over those decisions, so that short-sided, short-term fixes aren’t something we continue to experience in District 3.

Hopefully, we will be able to add to the significant accomplishments we’ve seen over the last two years in the two years ahead.

Emily: I hope so. Thank you for talking with me, I really appreciate it.

Joe: Thank you for the opportunity.

Emily: Thank you.