In a continuing sign of what may be the most difficult and ugly battle ahead for New York City school officials, Queens parents flooded a meeting and held a protest rally at a middle school in Jamaica on Thursday where a presentation was delivered on an upcoming plan to desegregate middle schools in District 28.
The gathering inside a school auditorium followed a packed tense meeting last month in which many parents were turned away because a maximum capacity of roughly 100 people had been reached. Facing accusations of a lack of transparency, the district's education council arranged a second presentation held in a larger auditorium.
But despite the larger accommodations, attendees suggested that the mood was still heated. Heather Dimitriadis, a community board member and parent in the district who attended both meetings, told Gothamist that the tone was "ratcheted up a bit."
"It was contentious but it was contentious partly because you had parents who were upset at the last meeting," said Dimitriadis, who provided an exhaustive account of the meeting on Twitter.
Even though the process has not even officially begun, some parents from the district have already organized a campaign against the plan in the form of petitions, letter campaigns to politicians and a public-records request, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The district, which encompasses the central Queens neighborhoods of Kew Gardens, Forest Hills, Rego Park and Jamaica, is home to roughly 42,000 students from a broad mix of socioeconomic and racial groups, including many immigrants. Currently, the district's middle schools give preference to zoned students, resulting in the highest performing schools, which are in the affluent neighborhood of Forest Hills, having relatively large numbers of white and Asian students. Meanwhile, Jamaica, which has more low-income and minority families, has chronically suffered from underperforming middle schools.
New York City has been struggling to address entrenched segregation in the public school system, the largest in the country. The push to desegregate the Queens district follows a similar effort in Brooklyn's District 15, which includes Park Slope, Sunset Park, and Red Hook, that removed academic screening in favor of a lottery system that gave priority to low-income students. That plan, which was parent-driven, has improved racial diversity without resulting in a significant drop in enrollment, according to recent DOE data.
District 28 was selected for the process because it applied and won a diversity grant. Following that award, WXY Studio, the consulting firm that helped Brooklyn's District 15 shape its plan, was hired to work with District 28 in Queens. Later this month, the firm is expected to kick off a series of public meetings in which the selected members of a working group collect feedback from parents.
But some parents have criticized the process as a "done deal," arguing that the city tapped WXY without first consulting with families and questioning how the roughly 20 members of the working group were selected.
WXY Studio did not return a request for comment.
In a statement, Katie O'Hanlon, a spokesperson for the DOE, said, “The core of the District 28 Diversity Process is community engagement and we welcome every voice and every community member. The public engagement process has not yet begun and we look forward to having a productive and healthy dialogue during this community driven initiative.”
Vijah Ramjattan, the president of the district's education council, said some of the concerns were understandable because he said the city was not as forthcoming as it should have been. Citing the yet-to-be-scheduled meeting later this month, he said that working parents in particular had a right to be upset that the DOE was not giving them ample notice to participate.
"It's not giving a fair opportunity for everyone to attend the meeting," he said.
Ramjattan added that he viewed the council's role as ensuring that all parents have an opportunity to make their voices heard in the process. Despite the protests, which took place prior and during the meeting and involved parents shouting at education officials, Ramjattan said Thursday's meeting went as well as they could have hoped.
He said he believed the parents were well meaning and that racism was not a factor.
"I don’t think any of it has anything with to do with race," he said. "It has to do with access to resources."