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An open letter on behalf of public school parents to Chancellor Dennis Walcott

PUBLIC ADVOCATE BILL DE BLASIO | 5/25/2011, 9:24 a.m.

Continuing a policy of closing schools first and asking questions later will only widen the gap between your agency and parents. Instead, I urge you as chancellor to use closure as a last resort, only following a real effort to give struggling schools support, including teacher training.

There are over 165,000 students with disabilities in public schools. Their parents face greater challenges than many others, but instead of being helped by the DOE they are too often forced to fight against its bureaucracy.

Elisa Gravitch, from Staten Island, has a 10-year-old son named Kyle who is on the autism spectrum. At his elementary school, Kyle was in an Autism Spectrum Disorder NEST program, which creates a balanced and supportive learning environment. As his elementary education came to an end, Elisa wanted the DOE to put Kyle in a middle school that would provide the same educational and social supports. But for over a year the DOE repeatedly ignored or dismissed requests from Elisa and other parents of children in the program. It took public intervention by local officials and my office for the DOE to finally hear these parents out and put their children in the school that best fit their needs.

With all that the parents of students with disabilities have to deal with, it should not take a year-long lobbying campaign for their voices to be heard. Under your leadership, the DOE will be implementing an important reform effort to make all community schools more inclusive to students with disabilities. In order to make these reforms work, you must be more supportive than your predecessor of parents of students with disabilities and be willing to take their input.

Finally, the most immediate issue facing our school system today is the mayor's proposal to fire over 4,600 teachers. This threat is not a new one; this is the second budget cycle in which the mayor has threatened to eliminate thousands of teachers then changed his mind seconds before the clock ran out. But while this year's budget dynamics make the prospect of serious layoffs far more real, the mayor has made it abundantly clear that his agenda puts the repeal of "Last In, First Out" before everything else. I believe we need a new system for evaluating teachers that accounts for student performance, but prioritizing this political fight over keeping teachers in the classroom is too great a risk to take. You need to show independence from City Hall by working first to stop thousands of teachers from being laid off instead of pursuing the mayor's political agenda.

You will most likely be the last of this administration's DOE chancellors. This is a real opportunity to improve upon Bloomberg's education legacy and to finally end the history of tension between parents and our school system. Giving parents a real voice in policy decisions, providing them with the support they need and asking them to contribute to their children's education will make our schools better. I hope you will join me in working with parents and all education stakeholders to make this vision a reality.