Tag Archives: Education

Lawmakers tackle education and affordable housing at first annual Ridgewood Legislative Forum

By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com

Photos by Kelly Marie Mancuso


Lawmakers, elected officials and residents gathered to discuss ongoing local matters at the first annual Ridgewood Legislative Forum, hosted by the Ridgewood Property Owners and Civic Association (RPOCA), on Thursday, Oct. 1, at I.S. 93 on Forest Avenue.

Councilman Antonio Reynoso joined state Senator Joseph Addabbo in an open forum question-and-answer session aimed at tackling some of the community’s biggest issues. Topics ranged from housing and neighborhood preservation to improvements in transportation and education. One of the biggest concerns dealt with maintaining affordability in Ridgewood amid the uptick in development and skyrocketing rents.

According to RPOCA president Charles Ober, buildings throughout Ridgewood have been falling prey to unscrupulous developers seeking to capitalize on the neighborhood’s recent growth and popularity by illegally converting and subdividing units. Ober explained that local tenants are being pressured into vacating their apartments, while landlords are also being harassed by developers looking to purchase their homes.

“They’re coming in here and breaking the rules. It’s not good for the neighborhood,” he said. “They’re buying up six-family houses, harassing the tenants and clearing out the buildings. They’re offering low amounts of money to get the tenants to leave. These tenants are rent-stabilized tenants. They’re part of the backbone of this neighborhood.”

In an effort to curb such harassment and prevent illegal conversions, RPOCA has teamed up with local tenants unions, as well as the Department of Buildings (DOB), to form a special task force aimed at identifying problematic locations and developers. According to Ober, the DOB will inspect suspicious locations for illegal conversions while mapping other potential buildings of concern.

In addition, the city recently passed a set of laws making such harassment illegal. Under the new laws, landlords can issue a written notice of “no sale” to developers, after which they cannot be contacted again for a period of six months. According to Reynoso, a developer can face arrest if the terms of the notice are violated.

Both Addabbo and Reynoso advocated for property tax reform as a way to maintain affordability in the neighborhood. Soaring property taxes were cited as a possible reason why so many homeowners are opting to sell and relocate. As a member of the City Council’s budget negotiating team, Reynoso agreed to draft a letter on behalf of RPOCA asking the city to make changes to the existing tax code.

“This is a very controversial thing to discuss,” he said. “When I looked at it, it’s very clear that people who have houses that are worth a lot more than what the people in Ridgewood have are paying the same taxes. That is inequity.”


RPOCA President Charles Ober (left) and Councilman Antonio Reynoso (right)

Senator Addabbo also advocated for the expansion of the SCREE program in an effort to prevent retired seniors from eviction. He also spoke in favor of legislation that would require that landlords inform their senior tenants about the program.

“SCREE is a program that works,” Addabbo stated.

Both Addabbo and Reynoso also tackled issues plaguing the city’s education system, including the embattled Grover Cleveland High School. According to Reynoso, the City Council invested the most money in education over the past decade. However, according to Addabbo, New York State has fallen behind in the funding of the city’s schools. Reynoso estimates that his district alone is owed $11 billion in funds from the state. As a member of the Senate’s education committee, Addabbo explained that he in engaged in the “Campaign for Fiscal Equity” in Albany in an attempt to secure these funds.

“This problem is bigger than Grover Cleveland High School,” Reynoso added.

Reynoso estimates a whopping 70 percent of the city’s students are under proficient, with only 30 percent of fifth-graders performing at a proficient level. The councilman attributes this to a lack of resources, as well as a disparity in education among the city’s immigrant population.

“The system doesn’t care about distinctions,” Reynoso added. “Immigrant students are at a disadvantage.”


Public hearing to be held in Ridgewood for struggling Grover Cleveland HS

| agiudice@ridgewoodtimes.com

COURIER/File photo

The future of the struggling Grover Cleveland High School will be the focus of a special public hearing next Saturday, Sept. 26, at the Ridgewood institution.

The school, located at 21-27 Himrod St., has been listed as one of 62 New York City schools that have been identified by the state Department of Education (DOE) as either struggling or persistently struggling. These schools are in danger of being placed under receivership by the state without quick improvement in academic performance in the next year.

The purpose of the public hearings is for the DOE to solicit input through public engagement regarding recommendations for improving the school.

The public is encouraged to sign up to speak at the hearing to voice their concerns and ideas for the school. Written comments will also be collected on the day of the hearing and can be submitted via the online feedback form as well.

The hearing will take place on Sept. 26 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. For those who cannot attend the hearing, they may submit comments by mail to the NYC Department of Education, State/Federal Education Policy and School Improvement Programs, 52 Chambers St., Room 320, New York, NY 10007, or through email to Receivership@schools.nyc.gov.


City announces latest procedure for ensuring pre-K sites meet health and safety standards

By Queens Courier Staff | editorial@queenscourier.com



City officials announced the latest steps to ensure that every “Pre-K for All” site meets the highest health and safety standards. As of Aug. 13, there are zero unresolved health violations in the most serious category at any Pre-K for All site.

All new pre-K sites have been subject to a rigorous approval process and inspection by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Department of Buildings and Fire Department. Returning sites receive annual inspections, with follow-up inspections if violations are discovered. The Department of Education also conducts walk-through inspections of pre-K sites in the lead up to the first day of school to check for education preparedness as well as health and safety concerns.

In order to allow for such rigorous inspection, safety and quality control were dedicated in this year’s adopted budget.  The Health Department, Fire Department, Department of Design and Construction, the Department of Buildings and the Department of Education were collectively able to bolster their pre-K-dedicated staff to over 400 inspectors.

“The safety and security of our students is always our top priority and we’ve left no stone unturned in ensuring that every pre-K site is ready for the first day of school – both in its ability to give our 4-year-olds the high-quality educational foundation they need to thrive in kindergarten and beyond, and in meeting our high safety and health standards,” said Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.


Woodside resident to seek Assembly seat and ‘fight for the middle class’

| aaltamirano@queenscourier.com

Photo courtesy of Brian Barnwell

Brian Barnwell is looking to be the voice of a district he has called home all his life and one he says needs a big change and new leadership.

The 29-year-old Woodside resident and lawyer has announced that he will run next year for the seat in the state Assembly representing District 30, which covers the neighborhoods of Maspeth, Woodside, Middle Village and parts of Astoria, Sunnyside and Long Island City.

The seat is currently held by Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, who was first elected in 1998.

“I just feel like it’s time for a change. I feel like we need some new energy where people are going to go out and engage the community and bring the community voices into the conversation,” Barnwell said. “Everyone is getting pushed out. The teachers are being thrown under the bus. The students are being thrown under the bus. The middle class is just being destroyed and we can’t take it for granted anymore. So I want to be the voice of the middle class, because I am in the middle class.”

Barnwell’s desire to run for office was fueled recently when he began working as the director of special events for Councilman Costa Constantinides, and experienced many residents coming into the district office complaining about various issues – including affordable housing.

This made him realize that there needed to be a change and he would be that change.

The platform of his campaign will strongly focus on helping individuals in the middle class and those vying to move into the middle class. With being a member of the middle class himself, along with his family, Barnwell said he has personal experience with the issues constituents face.

“The middle class is what made this country great. It’s what makes any country great. If you don’t have a middle class, you’re in trouble,” Barnwell said.

Barnwell’s platform – focusing on taxes, education and affordable housing – includes issues such as lowering personal income and corporate taxes; helping raise minimum wage; empowering teachers, parents and administrators in local schools and creating new curriculum based on districts; building more schools; and increasing the amount of affordable housing in the developing area.

For now, Barnwell will stay at Constantinides’ office until September, then he will hit the streets and reach out to the communities to see what issues the residents are facing.

“I want people to tell me what’s wrong with this district,” Barnwell said. “You’ve got to lead. You’ve got to be a leader. This why we elect these people to be leaders, not followers, and I want to be a leader. I don’t want to be a follower.”

Barnwell will hold his first fundraiser on Aug. 12 at 7 p.m. at The Brewery NYC, located at 49-18 30th Ave. in Woodside.

For more information visit Barnwell’s Facebook page or follow @Barnwell2016 on Twitter.


EXCLUSIVE: City’s first lady talks with The Courier about education, mental health

| rpozarycki@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Photo by Liam La Guerre

Calling Queens “a model” of what New York City can be, the city’s first lady Chirlane McCray outlined her efforts to expand education and mental health programs in an exclusive interview with The Courier.

McCray sat down with Courier Publisher Victoria Schneps-Yunis following an open forum in Kew Gardens on mental health issues affecting Queens residents on Monday. She and her husband, Mayor Bill de Blasio, have made a concerted effort toward focusing on mental health issues and breaking down barriers preventing New Yorkers in need from obtaining access to appropriate care.

Providing residents with proper access to mental health services and other basic needs is essential to a healthy city both in mind and body, yet many New Yorkers have been deprived of them in recent years, according to McCray.

“Having the resources to have a roof over your head, access to food, clean air, arts, physical education, so many other things we consider common sense and basic, yet we take them away,” she said. “When you strip them away from a community, what do you expect to happen?”

McCray stressed the importance of the city not only providing basic services to its residents but also using programs to develop role models for the city’s youth.

“There are so many” mentoring programs “but we need more,” she said. “Through the Mayor’s Fund, we have instituted a youth employment center” powered through donations from local businesses which provide “jobs for young people.”

“But it’s not just jobs,” McCray added. “It’s internships and mentoring young people year-round. We’ve doubled the number of jobs since last year, and we want to do even more in the coming months.”

The city is also expanding its mental health resources through special clinics aimed at helping 62,000 students in need. The universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) also plays a critical role in a child’s mental health and long-term education, she noted.

“One of the reasons why pre-K is so important is to reach the children early,” McCray said. “We want children to be assessed, evaluated early because if they have challenges in the classroom, they’re not going to get the kind of education they need.”

The first lady also noted that the NYPD is receiving additional resources not just to tackle crime, but also to address the mental health needs of crime victims.

“We’ve actually put money into making sure that in every precinct, there will be someone trained in” handling domestic violence cases “and working with victims,” McCray said. “We’ve never had that before.”

This effort, she remarked, will help develop “a different kind of relationship” between the NYPD and the communities it serves.

The full interview can be viewed below.



Kids speak out on education at Glendale roundtable

| editorial@ridgewoodtimes.com

TIMES NEWSWEEKLY/Photo by Kelly Marie Mancuso


Students got their chance to speak out on the controversial Common Core curriculum and other hot education topics during a special roundtable with state Senator Joseph Addabbo on Friday at Glendale‘s Excalibur Reading Program.

Addabbo spoke with the children at the roundtable and listened to their ideas and concerns. He also encouraged them to speak out about changes and improvements they would like to see in their schools.

“Whether you’re in first grade or going into high school, it’s important that we hear what we need in our schools,” he said. “I need to hear from the students because they’re the ones in the classroom.”

When asked what they wanted to be when they grow up, the children’s answers ranged from athlete and engineer to educator. The children got to ask Addabbo questions, such as what was his favorite color (“blue”) and favorite food (“pizza”), before the discussion shifted to a heated debate among the adults over the controversial Common Core curriculum.

Addabbo referred to Common Core testing as “questionable” and spoke out against the use of the test as a yardstick to measure a teacher’s performance and effectiveness.

“Having a test like the Common Core to evaluate our teachers is wrong and I voted ‘no’ on that part of the budget,” he said. “You don’t use a flawed test to evaluate a teacher. We should not oppress good teachers. We should reward them by giving them better resources.”

Local parent and Board of Education employee Maria Gregorio also weighed in on the issue. “We need to get out there and advocate,” she said. “I’m not there to sell the curriculum. I’m there to educate the children and help families. That’s why I applied for the Board of Education.”

As the father of two young daughters, Addabbo empathized with the plight of local parents. “I know the frustrations even I face as a parent,” he said.

Addabbo encouraged parents like Gregorio to get involved and advocate for change: “When you speak out for your child, you’re also speaking out for other parents.”

Excalibur mentor and tutor Christine Engesser spoke in favor of the goals behind Common Core, but also admitted that the curriculum is flawed in many ways.

“The thinking behind it is actually educationally sound,” she said. “They’re trying to get kids to examine a problem from different angles. Part of the problem for the adults involved is that they’re learning differently from the way we learned.”

One of Engesser’s critiques of the Common Core curriculum was that it did not account for disparities in age group and aptitude. “You have children with special learning needs with different learning styles and abilities and yet they have to take the same test,” she said.

Addabbo agreed. “These tests are not realistic,” he said. “We have made some changes, but we have a lot more work to do.”


Pol touts Ridgewood’s successes and the challenges ahead

| editorial@ridgewoodtimes.com

TIMES NEWSWEEKLY/Photo by Kelly Marie Mancuso


Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan discussed the many assets and issues facing Ridgewood at Thursday night’s swearing-in ceremony of the Ridgewood Property Owners and Civic Association (RPOCA) officials and board of directors held at the Ridgewood Older Adult Center.

“We have something very special here,” Nolan said. “It’s kind of ironic—lately it seems like the whole world is just finding that out. That’s going to present a whole new set of challenges for Ridgewood.”

In her address to the group, Nolan focused on the many positive aspects and improvements made in Ridgewood over the years, including bus and transit hub upgrades, the efforts and achievements of the Myrtle Avenue Business Improvement District (BID), and advances in local healthcare.

Nolan also cited improvements in sanitation, such as Ridgewood’s successful composting program and high recycling rates, as a major asset within the community.

“Ridgewood is the cleanest neighborhood in the city because we made that a priority,” she said. “We thought of it as just keeping our homes clean, but now we see the environmental benefit as well.”

Ridgewood’s growth and development as an environmentally friendly, sustainable community was also celebrated. According to Nolan, the availability of mass transit, as well as the ability to walk to stores and venues within the community, lessened dependence on cars, reducing pollution and improving the local environment.

In addition to improvements, Nolan also addressed the many challenges facing Ridgewood, including mass transit, the loss of manufacturing and an increase in domestic violence, which she referred to as a “hidden problem” in the community. Nolan’s office and the 104th Precinct are trying to combat domestic violence through expanded outreach and communication in the wake of last week’s deadly attack on Grove Street.

An issue of particular concern was the challenges facing senior citizen tenants struggling to hold on to their apartments amid rent hikes in the area. Nolan and RPOCA President Charles Ober discussed introducing legislation that would expand the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) to three- and four-family homes. SCRIE is a property tax rebate offered to landlords with the incentive of reducing the rent of a senior tenant residing in their properties.

In 2014, funding to the SCRIE Program was increased from $29,000 to $50,000. Currently, the exemption is only available to dwellings with six or more units. Nolan vowed to form a council in Albany that would draft legislation expanding eligibility to three- and four-family homes.

“It’s long overdue and I think we could try,” Nolan said.

Nolan swore in the 2015 RPOCA officers, including President Charles Ober, First Vice President Joseph Segreti, Second Vice President John Maier, Third Vice President Domingo Santos, Recording Secretary Maryellen Borello, Financial Secretary Helen Kutch and Sergeant-At-Arms Carlos Ortiz.

The RPOCA board of directors sworn in included Henry Cross, Geoffrey Elkind, Gregory Haufe, John Hertling, Voytek Oktawiec, Jamie Taratoot, Simon Orr, Richard Wessley, Louis Rodriguez and Chairperson Patricia Grayson.

Pastor Thomas Goodhart from Trinity Reformed Church in Ridgewood offered a Benediction at the swearing-in ceremony.


Community leaders urge BP to focus on creating new schools throughout Queens

| ejankiewicz@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Angy Altamirano

It turns out that it’s not just western Queens that has a problem with overcrowded schools.

Community leaders from across the borough urged Borough President Melinda Katz to push for school expansions during a budget meeting on Monday. Katz is in the process of developing the Queens budget for 2016, and she invited the public to comment on what mattered to them and their priorities for 2016.

“We’re experiencing a huge influx of children and we just don’t have the space,” said Karyn Petersen, Community Board 10 district manager. “We could use more schools or expand the schools we have. Both would be preferable.”

Petersen’s wishes were echoed by many others. Across the borough, people are reporting an increase in population and a swelling number of school children. In Woodside and Sunnyside, parents petitioned the city to create a new middle school. In the Jackson Heights area, Giovanna Reid bemoaned the fact that a new high school hadn’t been created in decades.

One hundred and fifty people, many representing hospitals, libraries, colleges and other institutions, signed up to speak at the hearing.

“We need a new high school,” Reid said.  “It’s about time for one.”

Along with a demand for more school seats, community leaders sought out funding to expand libraries, which, like the schools, are overcrowded. Along with a problem of limited space, many libraries are located on streets that are dangerous for pedestrians to cross.

“Kids have to cross the boulevard of death just to get to the library,” said Frank Gulluscio, the district manager for Community Board 6. “I mean I’m not trying to be dramatic but it’s a very dangerous place for kids to be even though many have to be there.”


Ridgewood pol to state: Stop shortchanging public schools

| agiudice@ridgewoodtimes.com

Photo by Anthony Giudice

Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan of Ridgewood, along with fellow lawmakers, educators, parents and students, rallied on the steps of City Hall Thursday morning demanding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers pay $2.5 billion owed to New York City public schools.

Of that $2.5 billion, according to the Campaign for Fiscal Equality (CFE), every state Senate and Assembly district is owed tens of millions of dollars in funding for their schools. State Sen. Joseph Addabbo’s district is owed nearly $137 million, the most of any Senate district.

Historically, advocates stated, NYC public schools have been woefully underfunded, as the NYS Court of Appeals determined in the CFE ruling. The CFE lawsuit was brought by parents in 1993 against the State of New York claiming that children were not getting an adequate education.

In 2006, the NYS Court of Appeals found that New York State violated students’ constitutional rights to a “sound and basic education” by underfunding public schools.

According to the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), a 2015 longitudinal study done by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when spending increases by 10 percent each year during low-income students’ tenure in school (K-12), those students earn 9.5 percent more as adults. Furthermore, graduation rates jump 4 percent, to 26 percent, and the likelihood of adult poverty is reduced.

“It’s very important that we’re here today to keep the focus on fulfilling the promise of CFE,” said Nolan, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee. “The court decision … said we have to provide our young people with a meaningful education that equips them for the future.”

“The economy has turned around, the funds are there. It’s time to keep our promises to the children and families of New York and for us, as state Legislatures, to continue to push for full funding for our wonderful young people,” Nolan added.

Currently, there is no proposed increase for school funding in Cuomo’s 2015-16 budget plan, unless the Legislature agrees to a series of new laws put forth by the governor.

The CFE launched a website which breaks down how much each public school is allegedly shortchanged, www.howmuchnysrobbed.nyc.



Obama’s call to make community college tuition free gets an A from Queens students

| ejankiewicz@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Photo by Eric Jankiewicz

Students at Queensborough Community College are hopeful about a proposal that President Obama made to make community colleges free.

Samuel Yun, who goes to school full time and has to work a part-time job to help cover his costs, including tuition, was happy to hear the government may be picking up his college tab.

“That would totally help me,”  Yun, 20, said as he left his class at the Bayside campus. “It’s difficult for me because I’m taking six classes so it [holding down a job] gets in the way of me getting school things done on time.”

Obama unveiled the plan on Friday. It will need the approval of the Republican-controlled Congress to go into effect, but White House officials say they expect some bipartisan support.

If the whole country participates, Obama’s idea could help about 9 million students per year and save them around $3,800 in tuition, according to the White House. In Queens there are two community colleges — Queensborough Community College and LaGuardia Community College. Combined, the two schools have more than 30,000 students that would benefit from free tuition.

In Queensborough Community College, there are more than 16,000 students, according to the school’s records, enrolled in associate degree programs and another 10,000 students attend continuing education programs at Queensborough Community College, all of whom would be eligible for free tuition.

LaGuardia has a student body of more than 50,000 students from more than 150 countries.

“At LaGuardia we see the impact that a college education has on our students and their families,” said Gail Mellow, the school’s president. “Each year thousands of our students get the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in today’s economy.”

For Yun, he would be saving around $3,200, and the proposal would allow him to also quit his job as a waiter to focus on his dream of becoming a computer engineer.

Nearby, Isaac Masty, who just started his first semester, waited for his friends to finish class.

“If it gets passed, it would be a real boost for people coming from other countries,” the 18-year-old said. “Foreign students have such a hard time when they come here and if they were able to get a free start to their education, it would really go a long way for them.”


Mayor Michael Bloomberg launches campaign fighting chronic absenteeism

| brennison@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Billy Rennison

Missing just two days of school per month may not seem serious, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg said today that it presents a major obstacle to a high school diploma.

Seventy five percent of chronically absent sixth graders — defined as missing 20 or more days of school, or two per month —fail to graduate high school, the mayor said at a press conference at P.S. 91 in Glendale where he launched a new ad campaign fighting truancy.

“Chronic absenteeism also is often a child’s first step down the wrong path in life,” Bloomberg said.

The $9 million campaign updates the well-known ad questioning parents where their children are at night, instead asking, “It’s 9 a.m., do you know where your kids are?”

P.S. 91 is one of 50 pilot schools throughout the city partaking in the program “Every Student, Every Day,” which helps reduce chronic absenteeism by assigning students mentors.

In its first year in the program, P.S. 91 has reduced chronically absent students by 26 percent.

Stupendous student scores scholarship

| aaltman@queenscourier.com


Stellar scholar Sarah Gafur snagged an award from the 2012 Scholastic Art & Writing competition – the country’s longest-running and most prestigious academic scholarship program for those who excel in the visual and literary arts.

Gafur, an eighth grader at P.S. 232 in Howard Beach, won a $6,000 scholarship to attend a three-week program at Wellesley College this summer, specialized for gifted students seeking a collegiate experience early in their academic careers. She is one of eight students throughout New York City who was chosen for this educational honor.

Since the program’s start in 1923, over nine million students have received recognition for their artistic achievements, sharing in more than $25 million in scholarships. Many distinguished members of the creative world were recipients of this award including Andy Warhol, Robert Redford, Richard Avedon, Zac Posen, Sylvia Plath and John Lithgow.

$1 Trillion in Student Debt

| brennison@queenscourier.com

The Courier/Photo by Billy Rennison

Here is what you can buy with $1 trillion: 5 million Lamborghinis, 15,000 private jets, 140 private islands and every team in baseball 16 times. Simply put, it is a lot of money.

The number — which is much more jarring when written out, 1,000,000,000,000 — is also the amount of debt students in this country collectively hold from their college loans. It is a backbreaking number, and an amount many feel is devastating their future.
A degree has become a prerequisite for employment, and rising tuitions means, for many, that debt is a precondition for entry into the workforce, so students have decided to fight back.

A rally was held on April 25 in Union Square to coincide with 1T Day — the day student loan debt hit $1 trillion — to raise awareness about the crisis and to begin a movement toward free college education.

Hundreds of protesters wore placards around their neck declaring the size of their debt, from relatively small amounts, like Jessica K.’s $13,000, to immense amounts, like Francis Rogers’ $108,000.

“Trillion dollar day is a reminder that private banks are still very much in the predatory lending business; this time it’s students not homeowners,” said Professor Andrew Ross, an organizer with the Occupy Student Debt 1TDay campaign.
The histrionics of the event — there were super heroes and choruses and even “Sallie May” showed up — did not overshadow the frustration of the hundreds of thousands of students drowning in debt.

“I’m the first person in my family to go to college,” said Annie Spencer, a CUNY graduate student. “I’m now $80,000 in debt and don’t see a day when I won’t struggle to make ends meet. Those of us who took on this trillion dollar debt were sold the promise of a better life in exchange for carrying the burden, but the deck was stacked against us from the start.”

More than two-thirds of graduates leave college with student loan debt, according to a 2008 study. The average debt for these 1.4 million students is more than $27,000.
The students at the Union Square protest — and many other groups that have taken up similar fights — do not believe all college should be free or that, as a rule, loans should not be repaid. Their tenets are that public college should be free — as it had been in New York until the 1970s — and that student loans should be repaid interest free.
“The goal of these protests isn’t to renege on our responsibilities, it is to make the institutions making billions of dollars on the backs of students take some responsibility,” said Stephanie, a New York University graduate with $90,000 in debt. “They want us to default.”

More than 40 percent of students from the class of 2005 have faced default and/or delinquency, according to the Occupy Student Debt Campaign.
The demonstrations eventually made their way toward Wall Street, though not before parking itself in front of a bastion for tuition-free — for now — education, Cooper Union, where one dissenter, who identified himself as Jesse, stood atop the Peter Cooper Memorial.

For students that dream of a tuition-free college education, Copper Union is their Shangri-la — well, it was. From 1902 until today the college charged no tuition, instead relying on a generous endowment providing each student a scholarship — furthering the school’s founder Peter Cooper’s belief that education should be free, and for more than a century his ideal held true at the school bearing his name.

But, in April, the school announced that it would begin charging tuition for select graduate programs. This flew in the face of what many students felt the school stood for.
So, Jesse stood atop the school’s founder’s memorial with a sign reading, “No tuition, it’s our mission,” leading to a two hour standoff with police before he was taken down in a cherry picker and arrested.

Cooper Union’s shift toward tuition mirrors the nation-wide trend of exploding college costs. In the past five years tuition at public universities has increased 24 percent, and 17 percent at private colleges.

This has led — obviously — to a steep incline in the amount of debt students leave college with. Thirty years ago the number was $2,000, a full $25,000 below today’s amount. Inflation makes up only a small amount of the difference; $2,000 in today’s value is just under $5,000.
“I’m pretty much carrying a mortgage, I guess the American dream of owning your own home is out the window for me,” said Valerie Young, a 23-year-old with more than $100,000 in loans. “I can’t live in my degree.”

Indebted student’s plight has reached Capitol Hill where politicians are debating bills that would prevent student’s interest rates from doubling in July, an issue President Barack Obama has been speaking out against.

“When kids do graduate, the most daunting challenge can be the cost of college. At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July,” Obama said in his State of the Union address. “Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid. We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down.”

Burning Mad

“My future is going up in flames with each loan bill I’m getting and can’t repay because I don’t have a job, and the interest just keeps pushing the bill higher,” said Frederick Iman after he lit his student loan bill on fire. “So I might as well burn my bill, too.”
Iman was not the only protestor to turn their bills to ashes, others joined in sending smoke signals that they are here to end predatory loan practices.
Though the economy shows signs of recovery, college graduates unemployment rate is still well above the average and a recent Rutgers University study found that only half of graduates between 2006 and 2010 graduates have found full-time jobs.
“[Lenders] are making money off every graduate and even more money when we can’t find jobs,” said Mark, an unemployed graduate of Miami (Ohio) University who lit his loan bill. “Someone has to stand up for us, it might as well be us.”
It is not only the Occupy Student Debt Campaign and its supporters that are attempting to reform lending practices for students.
Student Loan Justice (www.studentloanjustice.org) is another organization that is dedicated to returning standard consumer protections to student loans. The group has created a Student Borrower Bill of Rights that aims to bring these standard protections back. Currently, student loans are not forgiven in bankruptcy proceedings — the only type of loan that applies to.

The EDU Debtors Union (www.edudebtorsunion.org) believes that students in debt are akin to factory workers.
“Factory workers go to work every day and transform capital into profit by making products,” EDU says. “Students transform capital into profit when interest and penalties are added to a principle loan.”

This method becomes unacceptable, they say, “when there are abuses to the many for the benefit of the few without a method of recourse.”
So EDU has started a union. They believe debtors can benefit from union representation. Large numbers, they believe, represents a better chance for students to negotiate better repayment methods with lenders.

This is a tactic that the Occupy Student Debt Campaign also believes holds power.
The campaign is circulating a petition that students pledge to stop making loan payments in hopes of restoring free public college education if 1 million students sign the pledge.

No End in Sight

Marches, protests and refusals to pay aid in shining a light on student’s plight, but the bills will continue to come. Without government intervention, change will be difficult. There are bills in Congress that aim to help students, but according to govtrack.us, they have little hope of passing.

“Because there are so many student loan lenders and types of loans, a general debt strike will not necessarily hit the heart of the beast,” EDU wrote in a blog entry. “To organize a debt strike effectively, you have to start with specific lenders otherwise the impact of the strike will not be felt.”

Only a few thousand have signed the Occupy campaign’s petition, well short of the million they need before the debt strike, and some are concerned about ruined credit.
I don’t want to pay back these loans — and honestly I can’t — but I’m worried that not paying anything will just ruin my credit for life,” said Michelle Condon. “[Lenders] practices must change and I will continue to fight, but unless we all band together and refuse to pay, what difference will be made?”

These campaigns are lighting the fire, but if the flame is suffocated with default notices and compounding interest, what is the next step?

“We just need to get the word out,” said Ryan Lindner, a graduate of Cortland University. “My credit is already crap, they can’t make it worse. I refuse to recognize them until they recognize my basic rights. I will not pay.”

Grover Cleveland spared: Now the work begins, say teachers

| brennison@queenscourier.com


As dozens of students, faculty, supporters and alumni stepped to the microphone during Grover Cleveland High School’s public hearing last month — determined to have their voices heard — many were resigned to the fact that their shouts would fall on deaf ears.

But their raucous rallies were heard loud and clear.

Hours before the Panel for Educational Policy meeting to decide the fate of 26 city schools, Grover

Cleveland was removed from the list of Turnaround.

“I’m just glad the DOE listened to us for once,” said Nicole, a junior at the school. “We were devastated when we heard the news we might close; now, we can go back to being students.”

Under the Turnaround model the Ridgewood school would have closed and reopened under a new name with up to half the teachers being replaced.

In a statement, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that the school’s performance and quality of instruction have shown positive signs and an ability to continue these improvements.

In recent years, the school has shown signs of betterment, increasing its graduation rate and being rated as proficient on a quality review.

“We always had hope and we knew what the city wanted for us and we were doing it right,” said Mirit Jakab, an English teacher at the school. “We were worried the DOE was just following protocol, but through all the turmoil, we never gave up.”

The four-hour long public hearing and the passion and comments received that night played a role in the DOE’s decision to save the school.

“I’m really proud of the kids,” Jakab said. “They went above and beyond; they really fought for their school.”

Grover Cleveland, which was in the three-year restart program, lost out on the federal funds from the program when the DOE and teachers’ union failed to come to an agreement on a new teacher evaluation system. The school would have received additional School Improvement Grant funds if it entered the Turnaround program.

Though Cleveland has been removed from the list, its work is not done, said Jakab, who has been there for 10 years.

“Now, we have to roll up our sleeves and even go beyond what we were doing. I’m excited and ready to work.”

Parents, students, staff say Closing Flushing High School ‘Not A Solution’

| mchan@queenscourier.com

THE COURIER/Photo by Melissa Chan

While graduation rates at Flushing High School have climbed over the years — and education officials praised some of the school’s “areas of strength” — the extra credit points may not be enough to save the embattled institution.

Hundreds of supporters — sporting anti-Mayor Bloomberg pins — packed Flushing’s auditorium to have their voices heard by the Department of Education (DOE) during an agency-hosted public hearing on April 16.

Flushing is one of 26 high schools on the updated list for Turnaround after seven were removed from the original list of 33 on April 2. If the school is turned around, it would close and reopen under a new name. The students at the school would be guaranteed a seat, and half the teachers would be replaced, according to the DOE.

“Closing the school is not a solution,” said Jenny Chen, who teaches Chinese at the school. “If they change 50 percent of the staff, then it’s going to create a disaster. The students know now where to find help, and they know who they can talk to. I feel angry, and I feel sorry for the students and parents. They don’t deserve that.”

DOE Deputy Chancellor David Weiner said closing and replacing Flushing with a new school would “create a school environment that will prepare students for success, college, work and life.”

The statement launched an avalanche of uproar amongst audience members — many of whom told The Courier they felt improvements made along the years have been overlooked or ignored.

Graduation rates at Flushing have risen from 54 percent in 2007 to 60 percent in 2010, according to the DOE’s report. The review also indicated “areas of strength” at the school, including Flushing’s ability to “maintain a culture of mutual trust and positive attitudes toward learning.”

However, the report states these elements do not particularly help keep the school open, but is instead “worth preserving” in the new school.

“With the new supports and restructuring available under the Turnaround model, we expect that the New School will be able to effectively leverage these areas of strength while improving student outcomes for all students,” the report stated.

James Manning, a junior at the school, said Flushing’s major problems stem from an “overwhelming” population of students who cut school every day, do drugs in the hallway and simply “choose not to learn.” He said this is at no fault to the teachers.

“No matter who you put in front of that classroom, they are still the same kids,” Manning, 16, said.

While senior Sun Lin is graduating as possibly Flushing’s last valedictorian, he said the real honor lies in having attended Flushing for four years — a school he now considers a second home.

“Seeing a home be destroyed is not what I want,” Lin said.

Some supporters said the DOE jumped the gun by already introducing the new school’s proposed principal — Magdalen Radovich — before the city’s Panel for Educational Policy even voted on the closure. The DOE Division of Portfolio Planning hosted the meeting on April 25, and the voting took place a day after on April 26. The Courier went to press before both events.