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Principal Clamps Down on 5th Grader Handing Out Opt-Out Fliers, Parents Say

By  Carolina Pichardo and Amy Zimmer | March 18, 2016 7:34am 

 P.S. 84's principal Sereida Rodriguez-Guerra (left), with former parent coordinator Lydia Ruiz-Ferreira, standing with donations from parents to send to families of P.S. 317Q in Rockaway Beach in 2012.
P.S. 84's principal Sereida Rodriguez-Guerra (left), with former parent coordinator Lydia Ruiz-Ferreira, standing with donations from parents to send to families of P.S. 317Q in Rockaway Beach in 2012.
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DNAinfo/Meredith Hoffman

BROOKLYN — After finding a fifth-grader handing out opt-out fliers at her Williamsburg elementary school this week, a principal confiscated the materials, pulled the student into her office and then hastily convened a meeting for students, parents told DNAinfo New York.

Principal Sereida Rodriguez-Guerra of P.S. 84 chastised the fifth-grader, sending the student into tears, before telling an auditorium full of third- through fifth-graders, “You’ve got to get this opt-out stuff out of your head,” according to multiple parents of students pulled into the impromptu tirade against refusing to take next month's state English and math tests.

Rodriguez-Guerra went on to lecture the students about the controversial opt-out movement, telling them not to believe what their parents tell them and that the state exams given to third- to-eighth-graders were good for them and would make them smarter, parents said.

“My son came home and told me, ‘[the principal] was yelling at us. She kept saying, ‘You’ve got to get this opt-out stuff out of your head," said Cristina Dodd, a mother of a third-grader.

The DOE declined to discuss the incident, issuing a statement on the principal’s behalf, saying, “We encourage conversations about the important changes made to state tests to benefit students and teachers, in our classrooms and beyond.

“We want to ensure students and families feel prepared and understand that students will have more time, less pressure, and never be evaluated solely from this test,” the statement continued. “We welcome open dialogue and encourage families to reach out so we can support and guide them through this important process.”

The incident began around 8:20 a.m. Wednesday when a fifth-grader at the school — who felt frustrated after taking last year's state exams and had attended an opt-out meeting a week earlier — decided to hand out "refuse the test" forms to classmates in the school’s cafeteria before the start of classes, according to the student’s mom.

When Rodriguez-Guerra learned of the student’s actions, the high-achieving fifth-grader was promptly sent to wait in the principal’s office, where the 11-year-old was later brought to tears, said the mom, who asked to remain anonymous.

The flier incident comes on the heels of a series of anti opt-out actions at the school, according to parents.

P.S. 84's Parent Teacher Association denied a PTA committee's request to host a March public forum at the school on opting out, forcing parents to get a permit as an outside organization to use the school, said Brooke Parker, mom of a third-grader at P.S. 84, who hoped to invite parents from schools across the district.

“I believe in order for parents to make an informed decision about what they are going to do, they need to get the information,” Parker said, who wanted to clear up misinformation about the impact of opting out. Schools, for instance, won’t lose funding if large numbers of kids opt out, she said.  

Parker does not feel that the state tests will in any way help her daughter, who has dyslexia.

“If I let her take this test she would be sitting in front of a test that she can’t even read. My daughter would be sitting for 13 hours in front of a test she is guaranteed to fail,” said Parker, who believes that many are set up to fail, including other students with special needs and English Language Learners.

The school's clamp down comes amid a push by the DOE to assuage parents' fears about the tests.

In 2014, fewer than 2,000 kids opted out of the state tests. Last year that number swelled to roughly 7,200 students who sat out the math test and 5,400 refusing to take the English exam.

While still tiny relative to the student body — it represented less than 2 percent of the city's 400,000 third- through eighth-graders who take the exams — the opt-out movement has been gaining ground across many corners of the city as parents complain about the tests’ continued impacts on their children’s education.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has told principals that the changes made to the exams should allay families' concerns.

“The exams will contain fewer questions, and students will not have a time limit, as long as they are working productively,” Fariña wrote in her newsletter sent to principals this week. “I believe that both of these changes will go a long way toward easing the pressure for students and families, taking into account the varied learning needs of our students and enabling all students to work at their own pace.”

The tests have been reduced by roughly two questions, and though the tests will now be untimed, the time spent taking them is unlikely to decrease, according to parents and educators who have spent hours poring over the changes. They believe that third graders will still spend seven hours taking the tests, for instance, and fifth graders will still likely spend nine hours on the tests.

“Removing a few test questions here and there is not a meaningful change in the experience of students and schools, whose everyday teaching and learning is hugely disrupted by these tests,” said Megan Devir, a parent from Park Slope’s P.S. 321, who noted that while the test might be untimed this year, they used to be 75 minutes before tripling in length a few years back.

At a testing/PTA meeting Wednesday held at the high-performing school — where roughly 250 families opted out last year — Yolanda Torres, the head of the DOE’s Family and Community Engagement (FACE) showed up and asked to speak during the parents’ presentation against the state exams.  

“She issued blanket reassurances and urged that parents have their children participate in the tests without addressing in any real way the very deep concerns about the quality, length and use of the tests that had been so eloquently made by parents and educators present, who were clearly well versed in the subject matter,” Devir said.

Inwood mom Kari Steeves, who helped organize an opt-out meeting this week, conducted in English and Spanish, at the sought-after Muscota New School, said, “We know [testing] restricts learning, reduces opportunity and spreads anxiety. We want our kids to spend their time in classrooms where collaboration, experimentation, pondering questions, and making mistakes are welcome parts of every school day.”