To Fight Institutional Racism, Teachers Are Going Back to School

The teachers came from every New York City borough and from places as far-flung as Oregon and Washington, D.C. They were milling around a classroom at Columbia University’s Teachers College when facilitator Natalia Ortiz projected a sentence onto the board and instructed them to fill in the blank.

“When I talk about race and racism…,” it read. After a moment of hesitation, the teachers jumped right in.

Noah Garcia, a teacher in Brooklyn’s District 15, leads professional development on race and equity at her school. She said she found it harder to talk to her white colleagues about race than with her students. For Hector Alvarez, assistant education director at Greater Brunswick Charter School in New Jersey, status as a native Spanish speaker complicates discussions about race — vocabulary commonly used to speak on the subject in his culture might be deemed offensive in the American context. Another educator said that her fellow white colleagues stopped being friendly to her after she tried to start conversations about race. “When you’re socially excluded, that will get you to shut up,” she said.

The group went on to discuss the definitions of institutional, interpersonal, and internalized racism and how they show up in classrooms: the ways teachers assign grades, what history lessons they teach and from whose perspective, who they call on to answer questions, how harshly they discipline different kids for the same behaviors — even the way teachers praise kids for a job well done.

The workshop was part of Teachers College’s four-day Reimagining Education Summer Institute, a conference organized in response to what Amy Stuart Wells, the conference’s lead organizer, calls the “systematic way our educational system has tried to ignore the central role of race and culture” in solving the ills of American schools. Diversity has been a hot-button issue for city schools ever since a 2014 report by researchers at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project determined that New York had the most racially segregated schools in the country. In June, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s long-awaited new diversity plan, which established modest goals aimed at making schools more racially and socioeconomically representative. But de Blasio’s initiative focused primarily on shuffling students among schools; it ignored teacher training altogether.

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As a result, many teachers have set out to find training on their own. This is what drew the attendees to the conference, which featured workshops and talks led by education professors and researchers, anti-racism organizations, and teachers and parents. According to Sahba Rohani, director of community development at Brooklyn’s “diverse by design” Community Roots Charter School, if teachers aren’t engaged in conversations about their own experiences with race and power, they’re in no position to initiate them in the classroom — and that’s where conferences like the Reimagining Education Institute come in.

“If we are not in the practice of talking about our identity and experiences and unpacking it for ourselves, there’s no space for what that looks like in practice for an educator. You need to be able to give teachers time to talk but then say, ‘How does this connect to my practice? To the work I’m doing tomorrow in my classroom?’” said Rohani, who led a session at the conference.

For Deirdre Armitage, it was refreshing to see the ease with which teachers in the room were able to acknowledge the ways race shapes their classrooms. Armitage runs the student teaching program at the College of Staten Island, and her students — like most teachers nationwide — are predominantly white women. They come from middle- and working-class neighborhoods and most, she says, attended private schools for much of their lives. Yet the majority will go on to work in public schools on the island, teaching children of color. And when many of them step into Armitage’s classroom, they still subscribe to the myth of colorblindness.

“The most concerning thing is when [teachers] come into my class saying, ‘I don’t see race. I don’t see class. I see kids, and I’m going to treat all kids equally,’” said Armitage, who has studied the impact of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation on education for thirty years. “Well, we know that equal is not equitable. You do see those things, and we treat kids differently, whether it’s gender, race, or class. There’s all these subtle things you’re doing giving kids messages, and decades of messages tell kids things about themselves.”

Armitage, who grew up in West Brighton and attended public schools on Staten Island — as have all four of her children — requires that her candidates complete their student teaching and fieldwork in Title I public schools mostly on the north shore of the island, where the demographics are more racially and socioeconomically diverse than on the south shore. It’s a policy that has been met with some pushback from students: One claimed his father wouldn’t allow him to drive the family car into neighborhoods on the north shore, while another brought in a doctor’s note that said she “could not travel to the North Shore” — she wanted to complete her class requirements at a school closer to her home in a “better” neighborhood, according to Armitage.

“Once they spend time in the school they’re afraid of, they’re incredibly turned around and think, ‘Wow, this neighborhood is not what I grew up thinking it is,’” Armitage said. “Every time that happens, it makes me feel like, ‘OK. This is a first step.’” The next step, she says, is reining in any savior complexes, a phenomenon where well-intended white people behave as the authoritative last hope in the liberation of people of color, whom they treat as passive victims.

Armitage begins lessons on such topics as early-childhood pedagogy with discussions about how race, gender, and class have come to bear on the American educational system since its inception, from racist housing policies that shaped school zones and led to inequitable funding to the various times when access to education was withheld altogether from children of color. By the time students leave her class, they often request that other professors approach their subjects in the same manner.

It’s a conversation Armitage says is needed badly on Staten Island, New York’s whitest, most conservative borough, but one that is also home to many immigrants and people of color — and many schools that are racially and ethnically diverse.

“The stereotypical voters angry at the last eight years of Obama, they live here. They teach. This is a very real challenge we are facing. You have Blue Lives Matter [supporters] teaching kids of color,” said Armitage. “So you have this tension. My [students] ask about ‘All Lives Matter’ and I’m trying to explain this. It’s a tough climate, and that’s why this work is imperative.”

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Anti-racism training can be difficult for those in less conservative parts of the city as well, says Laura Shmishkiss, co-director of Border Crossers. “The danger can be for people who think they’re ‘woke,’ when in fact we’re all perpetuating racism all the time,” she said. “We are interested in racial equity, which integration can possibly lead to but may not. We have to look at how we as individuals perpetuate these systems.”

Educators say they’re encouraged by the recent surge of interest in racial-literacy training. Border Crossers employs seven full-time staffers and sixty trainers working in New York and Dallas, and since 2014 they’ve trained thirteen thousand city teachers. Shmishkiss attributes the increased interest in part to the enhanced media coverage of violence against black people in recent years. “We have been getting calls from school systems saying, ‘We want to be able to talk about this with students and don’t know how,’” she said. “I think schools are starting to give it more attention.”

Border Crossers offers training that ranges from their flagship six-hour starter session, where teachers develop strategies to address instances of racism in their classrooms, to a customized cadre of repeat workshops on such topics as unconscious bias and racial-identity development. Experts say approaching racial-literacy training as an ongoing project is the way to go.

“This isn’t the type of learning that can be a one-off,” said Natasha Capers, coordinator for the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ), a parent group that advocates for an end to school inequities. “You can’t learn everything you need to know about cultural competency in four easy sessions.”

While de Blasio’s Department of Education has yet to address diversity training for teachers, in February City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito allocated over half a million dollars to bring a training program called the Critically Conscious Educators Rising Series to about 360 teachers in 180 schools. The program focuses on privilege, race, and class in schools. Additional funding was pledged to send about 250 new teachers to anti-racism training at Border Crossers.

But just a few weeks before the start of a new school year, Capers says, the money has yet to show up.

“City Hall is sitting on it,” she said. “So the question has to be raised if the mayor really believes in his diversity plan. This is where the rubber meets the road and you have to do the work.” Capers added that CEJ has reached out to the mayor’s office numerous times for an update and that the response was “crickets.” When asked whether the money had been disbursed to the Department of Education, Robin Levine, the Speaker’s communications director, said, “We are working with the administration and a number of organizations to move forward with this program.”

Meanwhile, educators work on the day-to-day challenges of trying to promote an open discussion of race and racism in a world where no one wants to admit to either. Ortiz, a former public school teacher and now a trainer and program manager with Border Crossers, says she often struggles to help teachers differentiate between doing something racist and being a racist — a distinction that can free educators to talk openly about their shortcomings.

“What happens is there’s this whole thing around ‘Oh my god, you called me a racist,’ this defensiveness,” Ortiz said. “For us, it’s less important who is and is not a racist. It’s whether you’re understanding how racism created a system that hurts, damages, and kills people, and how you have benefited from that system.”

In a different session later that week, that lesson unfolded in real time. Rohani led a group of about thirty through exercises designed to help them develop their own training to take back to their schools. One included watching a video by Jay Smooth, a DJ and blogger known for his cultural commentary, on how to tell someone they said something racist.

“The most important thing that you’ve got to do is remember the difference between the ‘what they did’ conversation and the ‘what they are’ conversation,” he says in the video. “The ‘what they did’ focuses strictly on the words and actions and explaining why what they did and said was unacceptable.” Talking about what someone is, he says, is a “rhetorical Bermuda Triangle” that ultimately lets people skirt responsibility for their actions.

Afterward, the group filled out identity maps, worksheets that participants complete with adjectives they use to describe who they are, in their own eyes. Lelia Spears, a pre-K and kindergarten teacher at Janney Elementary School in Washington, D.C., shared some of hers out loud. She’d come to the conference with a group of fellow teachers from Janney, in search of help designing anti-racism teacher training for their school, which is predominantly white. “One of the only places where kids are talking about race is on the playground,” Spears told me. “That’s the biggest reason why I was drawn to go.”

Included on the Georgia native’s identity map were “woman,” “mother,” and “Southern” — a tag she says she felt was intensified by her presence in New York City. Race politics in the North, she said, didn’t seem that much different from in the South. But watching Smooth’s video encouraged her to speak up. “Traveling through the South as a white person is different [for me] than for other people,” Spears told the group. Later, she told me that she’d initially reacted defensively to what she saw as a characterization of the South as, above all else, racist. But she quickly realized that image was rooted in centuries of history.

“Clearly there are places in other parts of America that have racism as well, but history is such a grounding force in racial literacy. I can be in New York and Atlanta, and both places have racism but it feels very different to people who have a different history [from my own] in those places,” she said.

It was a heavy moment. “That video helped me share that I experienced racial-literacy growth in that room,” Spears said. “My first thought was ‘I’m such a racist.’ Labeling it as something racist I said and can learn from was really helpful. [It] was a way to say, OK, I can separate something I did from something I am.” This distinction, experts like Ortiz, Smooth, and Rohani say, helps teachers work on identifying, taking responsibility for, and correcting racist behaviors that harm children, instead of getting stuck in arguments and anxiety over labels that don’t ultimately stop the harmful words and actions.

The city has a long way to go if it hopes to alleviate segregation, offer the same high-quality opportunities at every single school, and truly make schools open sanctuaries where all children see themselves reflected in their lessons, teachers, and peers. And, no doubt, part of the mission to give every kid a fair shot must include teacher training to help educators prepare for this future.

“We want to make sure all our students have the highest quality of education, but also the highest level of dignity and respect,” added Shmishkiss. “The more we’re able to provide training that can open consciousness, that over time does start to have a ripple effect. So this is where we’re starting.”


Video: Paul Ryan Jeered By New Yorkers During Visit To Harlem Charter School

A week after he rammed through legislation that would strip an estimated 2.7 million New Yorkers of health care, House Speaker Paul Ryan was greeted with jeers and protests in Harlem yesterday when he visited a branch of the controversial Success Academy Charter Schools.

Protesters, who had been waiting for Ryan’s arrival for more than five hours by the time his motorcade pulled onto 118th Street at 2 p.m. yesterday, chanted, “Shame, shame shame!” as he entered the building, and “Ryan! Come out! We’ve got some things to talk about!” during his brief visit.

More than half of the protesters appeared to be focusing on Ryan’s efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act. “After what he’s done with health care, I don’t understand why he would be invited here,” said Liliete Lopez, a blind Bronx 40-year-old who works with the Center for the Independence of the Disabled. “He’s all about putting people with disabilities in institutions. He’s not about equality.”

But many demonstrators were also taking the opportunity to protest Success Academy, the charter school juggernaut, and its founder, Eva Moskowitz. Success Academy has made aggressive plays for expansion in New York City, often at the expense of existing public schools. The location at 118th Street was opened a decade ago in a building that already housed multiple public schools. Mindy Rosier, a teacher at a special needs school that shares the building with Success Academy, told the Voice that over the years, the Moskowitz school has expanded into space that the public school students badly need.

The fact that Ryan was visiting the controversial charter school but not the public schools in the same building troubled some protesters. “There’s more than one school in this building, that’s the iniquity in it,” said Mary Riley, a 74-year-old from Harlem, whose children graduated from public schools. “We can’t stand for this divided site. There’s no reason for it. Public officials need to support public education.” (When Ryan finally arrived, he did make a brief visit to a public school classroom on the site before touring Success Academy.)

Public Advocate Tish James joined the protest out of solidarity with New Yorkers who could lose their health care under a Ryan plan, she said. “I doubt seriously that Paul Ryan cares about the children in this school,” she told the Voice. “He cares nothing about those black and brown children whose families might lose their health care. He could care less about the children whose parents might be torn apart by immigration enforcement.”

James avoided criticizing Moskowitz or Success Academy, however. “I’ve got no problem with the school,” she said, “because you can’t argue with the results of Success Academy.”

Moskowitz touts Success Academy’s high test scores, but reports suggest those results may be achieved in part by a policy of pushing out students who require more attention. Last year, the charter school company was sued by parents alleging that Success Academy downplayed, ignored, and failed to accommodate students with special needs. Video leaked last year showed a first-grade teacher taking the school’s high-stakes and discipline-heavy approach to an emotionally abusive extreme, though the school said the conduct shown in the video was not representative of Success Academy.

Moskowitz has a contentious relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio, but she has more powerful friends. She turned down an offer to become President Trump’s secretary of education and has been a vocal supporter of Betsy DeVos, the charter school champion who ultimately took that position. Shortly after the election, Moskowitz hosted Ivanka Trump at the same Success Academy location that Ryan visited, and she broke with other educators in stressing her willingness to work with President Trump.

Moskowitz and the Trump administration have more than ideology in common — they share a benefactor. Robert Mercer, the reclusive hedge-fund billionaire who guided and bankrolled the Trump campaign, also gave more than a million dollars to Success Academy during 2014 and 2015.

“The reason Paul Ryan is here is because he was invited by Eva Moskowitz,” said Zakiah Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education of New York. “In her school, she claims to educate black and brown kids and yet continues to cause trauma to those very children by inviting people like Ivanka Trump and Paul Ryan. She praises Betsy DeVos. So the question becomes, why? Is it about using black and brown children as political pawns for her political agenda to privatize our schools? Is it her agenda to use our black and brown babies to get money for her expansion? I have to say yes.”

In a statement after Ryan’s visit, Moskowitz said that the Speaker “took the opportunity to see firsthand what is working.” Ryan also issued a statement praising Success Academy. “The quality of teacher training and preparedness was extraordinary,” he said. “They have a lot to be proud of, and these remarkable kids are getting a great education. That’s what matters — giving every kid a fair shot at the American Dream.”



28th Annual “Taste Of The Nation” Gives As Well As It Receives

Outside 180 Maiden Lane, blocks from the South Street Seaport, a server holding a tray of sample cups greeted arrivals, her name tag indicating she was with the NYS Department of Education. “Turkey chili?” she offered. And just like that, Share Our Strength’s 28th annual “Taste of the Nation” food festival was off and running, the chili cups a small sampling from the city’s school lunch program, as well as a humble reminder of why over 800 guests were gathered last Monday on a damp and misty evening in lower Manhattan. Share Our Strength’s “No Kid Hungry” campaign, beneficiaries of the night’s proceeds, battles child hunger across the country; on a local level, it provides breakfast and summer lunch programs to schoolchildren who would otherwise go without, and proceeds from this particular evening raised enough for 1.9 million meals.

In the expansive glass atrium of 180 Maiden Lane, the dapper Eamon Rockey — formerly of Betony (RIP), and our spirits chair for the evening — welcomed partygoers with glasses of his beloved milk punch. The room was festooned with flags in bright orange, the campaign’s signature color; they dotted each booth with the name of its participating restaurant or bar, of which there were fifty. Danny Meyer served as the event’s honorary chair, with chefs Anita Lo and Bryce Shuman serving as culinary co-chairs.

Representatives from Meyer’s far-flung restaurant empire were clustered together, an amalgamation of booths bearing mostly sweets and cocktails, including Daily Provisions and its popular maple cruller. Union Square Cafe was set up away from the crowd, serving a roast pork and sweet pea bruschetta with grilled ramps, a bite-size re-enactment of the refined rustic and seasonal cuisine for which it is known.

Chef Emily Yuen’s Bessou passed out a memorable Japanese riff on the deviled egg, appropriately named Deviled Tamago: a smoked, soy-pickled egg topped with shiitake bacon and karashi (mustard) cream. Chef Gerardo Gonzalez of Lalito served curried chickpea tamales with charred poblanos; throughout April, he had donated all proceeds from the dish’s full-size restaurant version to No Kid Hungry. And Acme’s Brian Loiacono doled out savory mini-tarts of nettles and goat cheese, inspired by the new spring menu at his restaurant.

The eighteen-year-old chef–boy wonder Flynn McGarry of Eureka was on the evening’s host committee, and his sweeping mop of hair could be seen bouncing throughout the event as he stopped to chat with his (older) peers, grazing as he went. Chef Leah Cohen of Pig and Khao and Top Chef fame was dressed down for the night, out of chef whites and clad in jeans and a T-shirt, as she chatted with bystanders and helped her team pass out bowls of Khao Soi, a spicy curry noodle soup topped with a crisp heap of fried noodles.

The Department of Education had a booth too, where Kid-friendly Kale Salad was being offered — it wasn’t the salad-converting bite one hoped it might be for young palates, but the chili cups from earlier and the creamy NYS Apple & Celery Salad both earned two thumbs up.

It was a night made for the Instagram set, as multiple kiosks, dubbed “Photo Beautifiers” by Citi sponsors, gave strollers the opportunity to snap glamour shots of their food within a backlit mirrored cube. A DJ spinning Top 40 hits soon gave way to the alt-country band the Strumbellas. Then another DJ took over and the room filled with enthusiastic dancers, buoyed by the cocktails and spirits on offer. A brief round of amateur breakdancing ensued.

Just when we thought we would eat no more, we found ourselves outside assessing the light rain and lack of yellow cabs in sight. A food truck from Walter’s Hot Dogs, a Westchester institution since 1919, was parked nearby, the scent of split dogs being seared on a flattop beckoning us over — with most revelers still inside eating and drinking, there was no line. The duo inside the truck were bustling around, assembling mini-plates of funnel cake sticks dusted with powdered sugar, while pressing down every so often on their sizzling hot dogs. We were able to make room for more, so we accepted the offerings of half hot dogs and funnel cake, finding the familiar carnival of flavors a comforting final bite to this year’s lineup.


Pre-K For Three-Year-Olds Is Coming To NYC — If Someone Steps Up To Pay For It

On the heels of what was perhaps the fastest rollout of free, universal prekindergarten in the country, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s newest investment in early childhood education yesterday: free prekindergarten for all three-year-olds regardless of family income by 2021.

The project, dubbed “3-K for All,” will begin by expanding prekindergarten seats in the mayor’s existing universal program for four-year-olds to younger children in historically neglected neighborhoods — District 7 in the Bronx and District 23 in Brownsville — over the next two years. By the fall of 2018, the city hopes to reach 1,800 children in these districts — triple the amount of children in early care programs in those areas today. Research says that every dollar invested in high-quality early education saves taxpayers as much as $13 in the long term, according to a City Hall release on the program. The initial expansion in the Bronx and Brooklyn will cost the city $16 million.

“This extra year of education will provide our children with a level of academic and social development that they cannot get later on, while at the same time, alleviating some of the strain New York City’s working families face today,” Mayor de Blasio said in the same release. The city has committed to funding the program in eight districts by 2020 and hopes to secure additional funding to make the program universal by 2021. Once fully rolled out, the program is expected to serve 62,000 students in 3-K, an effort that will cost over $1 billion — an admittedly early estimate, according to the mayor.

Perhaps the mayor’s most successful citywide initiative yet, free, universal prekindergarten for four-year-olds went from ambitious campaign promise to reality in under two years — a massive feat. Through the universal prekindergarten program, more than 70,000 four-year-olds in about 1,800 public schools and community centers now have access to early education — learning that education research has long proven crucial in helping to level academic achievement gaps between wealthy and low-income children. The city hired and trained thousands of teachers to fill the new classrooms and, in the program’s second year, found evidence that widespread access to prekindergarten didn’t mean that programs would be low-quality.

Still, there is significant evidence that the program, like much of the city’s public elementary, middle, and high schools, is highly racially segregated. Researchers say the program could benefit from a more explicit dedication to racial integration, a stance the city continues to duck in favor of parent choice.

It comes as no surprise that the mayor would pick another popular, major education goal in an election year, particularly as his other re-election promises have been criticized, including the dubious Brooklyn-Queens streetcar; an all but abandonment of the city’s growing homelessness problem, which includes 33,000 school-aged children; and the closure of Rikers Island jail, a popular notion for sure, but one that has been met with skepticism (the mayor has refused to say whether construction of a new jail on Rikers Island will be allowed to continue and put the timeline for the current facility’s closure within a decade — beyond his term of office).

While the expansion of prekindergarten to three-year-olds is definitely a good thing, it will not come cheap. The city will need to train and hire 4,500 teachers and find classroom space for thousands of children. Making the program universal will depend upon the state and federal government getting on board with de Blasio’s vision —to the tune of $700 million. And while Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Donald Trump are certainly not friends, they share a common distrust of the mayor. The city says it will spend a total of $177 million per year on the program, and the Administration for Children’s Services already contributes $200 million yearly to the existing EarlyLearn NYC program, which serves about 10,000 three-year-olds. The rest will be up to the state and the federal government, neither of which have inspired much faith as of late.

Read more about the mayor’s proposal here.


Creating Safe Spaces for New York’s Undocumented Students

Angela, a senior at Sunset Park High School in Brooklyn, came to the United States from Mexico when she was three years old, but says she didn’t really feel “undocumented” until she got to high school.

“You want to apply to all these programs in your school, apply for a part-time job,” the eighteen-year-old tells the Voice. (Because of her immigration status, she asked that her real name be withheld.) “But you don’t have a Social Security number, so you don’t know what to do, or how to get around it.”

For the past two years, Angela has been part of a “Dream Team,” a collection of undocumented students and their allies organizing to create safer spaces for immigrants in public schools, and to try to get more investment from the Department of Education in providing support for its undocumented students. Over the past several years, the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a nonprofit that has pushed for financial aid and other support for undocumented students, has helped set up at least five Dream Teams in city public schools. At a time when undocumented students don’t quite know who to trust or whether the city is actually as much of a sanctuary as it says it is, Dream Teams provide vital spaces for students to talk openly about their status, their fears, and their needs.

“Many of our members are told by teachers or counselors that because they’re undocumented they shouldn’t push for higher education, they should just go to work,” explains NYSYLC co-director Angy Rivera. “Students are looking for resources, and instead they don’t have a place to go.”

“We needed to figure out how our schools could be a real sanctuary space, not only as a place for safety, but where you could learn about how to protect yourself and your family,” Angela adds.

Shortly after entering high school, Angela was directed by a teacher to Jennifer Queenan, an English as a Second Language teacher who serves as advisor to Sunset Park High School’s Dream Team. Through Queenan’s group, Angela connected with city and nonprofit programs that accepted students without social security numbers, enabling her to get stipends for internships. She also helped other immigrant and undocumented students organize around legislation like the NY DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students to qualify for financial aid.

“Once I met with other immigrants as a group, we began to feel safer — you become a community,” says Angela. “I learned about how other students had to cross the border on foot — things I thought only our parents had to do.”

Queenan is a member of Teach Dream, a group of educators and counselors working to make city schools safer for undocumented students. Since she began teaching in Sunset Park several years ago, Queenan has become the school’s unofficial “immigrant liaison,” someone to whom other teachers refer students when they have questions about immigration. Queenan leads the weekly “Dream Team” meeting, which includes not only undocumented students, but also students from mixed-status families, and allies. She compares it to a meeting of the Gay-Straight Alliance, where students can talk about actions they can take, share information, and discuss issues to organize around. Dream Teams citywide have worked to help organize “Coming Out of the Shadows” rallies (where undocumented students talk openly about their status), end overpolicing of public school students — especially in instances where misdemeanors can lead to deportation — and organize a campaign to get more social workers in schools.

Now, the Sunset Park Dream Team is pushing the Department of Education to create a designated liaison in every school. “If our schools are going to be spaces for the community, which I think they should be, people need someone that they know and trust to go to with their questions,” Queenan says. “Obviously we can’t give legal advice, but something we do to the best of our abilities in Teach Dream is know what the trustworthy organizations are, so when students and families do have questions, we can create those connections.” Over 300 people subscribe to the Teach Dream listserv, which supplies educators and counselors with information they can help spread to students, she notes. “But we do that all on our own time, and teachers don’t have a lot of free time, contrary to popular belief.”

The campaign has taken on added urgency since Donald Trump’s election. On January 30, parents of students at city schools received a letter from the New York City Department of Education assuring them that despite Trump’s executive order on deportations, the city was still “committed to protecting the right of every student in New York City to attend public school, regardless of immigration status.” But the letter also included less reassuring words: “If ICE officers go to a school for immigration enforcement purposes,” wrote Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, “they will be referred to the principal, who will take appropriate action.”

The next month, Dream Teams rallied in Brooklyn to demand that Fariña clarify exactly what form that “appropriate action” would take. Was there a citywide policy on ICE inquiries into students’ residency statuses? Or could principals act on their own, endangering immigrant students based on their own prejudices? By the end of March, the DOE had issued a more detailed set of guidelines for when ICE agents come to city schools (they will be made to wait outside of school property while school officials confer with DOE attorneys), and announced a series of know-your-rights trainings for students across the city; a DOE spokesperson tells the Voice that student organizing had no impact on this decision, but given the amount of pressure that students exerted, that’s hard to believe.

Still, the DOE has resisted proposals for citywide immigrant liaisons. (The department declined to respond to the Voice‘s queries about the proposals.) Queenan is working with informal liaisons at other schools to keep pressing the DOE on the need for support for the position.

After her graduation this summer, Angela plans to attend community college in Manhattan, so she can stay close to her family. Both her younger siblings were born here and are citizens, and she feels better at a CUNY school, where she can connect with other undocumented students. A Dream Team already exists at the college she’ll be attending.

“You spend all day in school,” Angela tells me. “The least they can do is make sure that you can feel safe.”


How to Avoid the Tuition Trap: A Student Buyer’s Guide

One of the quandaries of figuring out how to pay for college is that by the time you’ve figured out how heavy a debt load you’re likely to find yourself crushed underneath, it’s too late to do anything about it. (Colleges don’t offer advanced degrees in financing your education — and if they did, you’d only end up having to figure out how to pay for those, too.) There are some things that college-bound high school seniors and already matriculated college students can do to help avoid the worst pitfalls, though; we asked a pair of college-finance experts for their tips.

Check the Scorecard

In 2015, President Obama introduced College Scorecards on the federal Department of Education website, which provide a wealth of data on graduation rates, average earnings after graduation — and student debt load. “At some schools in the country, students are virtually guaranteed to leave school with debt, and a lot of it,” says Debbie Cochrane, vice president of the Institute for College Access and Success in California. “Whereas at others, they may be able to graduate debt-free, or with an amount of debt that’s manageable. So look carefully into the schools you’re choosing, to make sure yours is not one that’s likely to leave you with debt you can’t repay.”

Read the Loan Fine Print

Once you choose a college, scrutinize loan offers carefully, says Cochrane, not just for their interest rates, but for what protections they have in case you have trouble repaying them. “Not all debt is the same,” she says, noting that private loans are particularly suspect but that even some public loans can come with snags: “New Jersey has a state loan program where students are encouraged to take out a form of life insurance, because their debts will not be discharged if they die. It’s horrendous. Students need to understand those differences, and proceed incredibly cautiously if the school is encouraging them to take out private loans.”

Use Income-Driven Repayment

If you hit hard times after graduation, head immediately to the DOE to enroll in an income-driven repayment plan, which caps your monthly loan payments at between 10 and 20 percent of your discretionary income, after necessities. (Note: Only federal student loans are eligible for this repayment form, another reason to think carefully before deciding what loans to take out.) “The number of borrowers in these plans has grown in recent years, which is a good thing,” says Cochrane. “No student should be forced into the poorhouse, or to go hungry or homeless, because of their student loans.”

Pricier Isn’t Always Better

There are nearly five thousand degree-granting institutions in the United States, some of which come with price tags upwards or $60,000 per year. But an expensive school does not always a better school make, something you should consider carefully when choosing a college. “The quality of most colleges is great, so in going to a less expensive school you’re not really going to sacrifice quality,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the college admissions and financial aid website Cappex. He notes that you can find professors educated at the top schools at all kinds of campuses: “The Ivy League graduates more Ph.D.’s than they hire as faculty. They have to go somewhere to teach.”

Seek Out Scholarships

Pursue college aid via every avenue you can find, beginning with what Kantrowitz calls “gift aid” — money you won’t have to pay back. In addition to government free-tuition programs such as those offered for community colleges in Tennessee and Kalamazoo, Michigan, look for scholarships offered not just from your university, but also from community organizations or special-interest groups in your hometown that cater to your personal identity or talents.

Consider Transferring Credits

While community college tuition can be much cheaper, Kantrowitz warns that students who detour through community college may never reach their final destination. “Only one-fifth of students who start at community college get a bachelor’s degree in six years,” says Kantrowitz, versus two-thirds of students who start at four-year colleges. He recommends taking core or prerequisite classes at a community college during summer session, then transferring them to a four-year school — just check in advance that the new college will accept them.


The Free Tuition Trap: Cuomo’s Scholarship Plan Is Full of Risky Loopholes

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to waive tuition fees for lower- and middle-income New Yorkers at any two- or four-year public college in the state, touted as the first of its kind in a nation drowning in student debt, has emerged from the state budget brawl and is set to go into effect beginning this fall. “Today, my friends, college is what high school was seventy years ago — it is not a luxury, it is a necessity,” the governor said last week at a signing ceremony at LaGuardia Community College. But the final version of the Excelsior Scholarship program, which will cost the state $163 million a year once it’s fully phased in by 2019, comes with some unexpected and alarming caveats.

For starters, it now includes a requirement that students live and work full-time in New York State for as many years after graduation as they received aid; otherwise, the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation will convert the scholarship money into a no-interest loan that students will have to repay. The state senate and private-college officials across the state also pushed for and received a provision for private-college students to receive up to $3,000 per year in Tuition Assistance Program grants — which must also be repaid if they don’t live and work in the state after graduation.

That’s a mistake, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple University who has advocated for free-college initiatives. The requirement could leave Excelsior recipients unable to pursue job opportunities elsewhere, forcing them to remain in New York to avoid debt even if it means unemployment.

The allure of a free education, Goldrick-Rab warns, could ultimately spell disaster two or four years down the road. “People will believe that they’ll be able to fulfill the terms,” she says. “It will only be after graduation [when] something happens — it might be the best job offer is out of state, or that they can’t find one in the state and have to look somewhere else, or their grandmother gets sick — at the last moment they’re going to find out that New York expects to be paid back.”

Another provision demands that students maintain the minimum GPA required by their schools to remain in good academic standing, and that they graduate on time. Asked whether students will be responsible for repaying tuition from prior years if their GPA drops below the minimum, the governor’s office said it would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

The graduation requirement alone would make most students ineligible for Excelsior scholarships. On-time graduation rates at CUNY community colleges have remained consistently below 10 percent since at least 2005. The four-year graduation rate at SUNY schools is 48.9 percent according to the most recent data available, higher than the national average. The governor’s office says the requirement is intended to incentivize on-time graduation: If finishing your degree on time means free college, the thinking goes, those rates will improve.

Excelsior recipients will also be required to earn thirty credits per year, meaning part-time students — a group that includes those who work full-time, have children, care for elderly family members, or are not recent high school graduates — are excluded entirely. Undocumented students are also ineligible for the scholarship, despite early attempts by Governor Cuomo to have them included.

While the governor has touted Excelsior as the first state program to fully subsidize tuition at four-year colleges, other states’ and cities’ free tuition programs at two-year community or technical colleges come with no income restriction, no requirement to stay in the state post-graduation, and in some cases considerable academic support that begins at the high school level and continues through college graduation. In Tennessee, for example, community college is free for any high school graduate in the state regardless of income, provided they remain a full-time student. Oregon and the city of San Francisco have similar programs, and Senator Bernie Sanders recently introduced a federal bill that would make tuition at public four-year universities free for families making up to $125,000, establish free tuition for all at community colleges, cut student loan interest rates in half, and triple the federal work-study program budget.

Cuomo has insisted that the residency requirement is justified. “Why should New Yorkers pay for your college education and then you pick up and move to California?” he said on a call with editorial writers from around the state last week, as reported in the New York Post. A spokeswoman from the governor’s office notes that several other financial aid programs in the state have similar residency requirements, including a master’s in education teaching scholarship and a STEM scholarship for high school graduates in the top 10 percent of their class, each of which requires graduates to remain in the state for five years at the risk of loan conversion. She says there are plans to prevent loan conversion for students who pursue advanced degrees out of state, provided they return to New York afterward, and for students who join the military, as well as hardship deferments on a case-by-case basis.

Still, the rule will mean some students will have to turn down job opportunities — the very thing a college education is supposed to give them — to avoid student debt, the burden the program is meant to alleviate in the first place. 

The residency clause pushes the initiative “in the wrong direction,” says Cody Hounanian, digital director at Student Debt Crisis, which represents graduates with student debt burdens across the country. He rejected the notion that a potential loss of talent was reason enough for New York to threaten students with incurring debt: “Education is a public good. Educating people is reward enough.”

According to SUNY, about 73 percent of graduates are still employed in New York State four years after graduation. But many people work in New York state but live on the other side of bridges and tunnels, sometimes in search of more affordable housing — something Excelsior graduates would be prevented from doing.

Though marketed as free college, the program is more accurately described as a “last dollar” plan, meaning it will award eligible students (by 2019, any student from a family that earns up to $125,000 in adjusted gross income) a scholarship to fill in gaps left over after they receive state and federal financial aid, including via the state Tuition Assistance Program and federal Pell Grants. While this would be a huge savings for students from middle-income families who are ineligible for TAP and Pell Grants, it won’t help with room and board, food, transportation, textbooks, personal expenses, or student fees — costs that can add up to as much as $18,210 a year at four-year colleges and $14,810 at two-year schools by SUNY’s own estimates, dramatically eclipsing tuition at the schools, which is among the cheapest in the nation. (The new state budget does include $8 million for CUNY and SUNY to spend on electronic and open-resource textbooks to help offset costs.)

Many CUNY students, in fact, already have their tuition covered by financial aid, and so will see no benefit from the plan, says John Aderounmu, a junior at Hunter College and member of the Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again. Because those students are often forced to take jobs while in school to pay for rent, food, and books, he says, many end up pursuing fewer than the required thirty credits per year, which would leave them ineligible for Excelsior. And all this does nothing for the thousands of people across the state who have already graduated and are saddled with exorbitant student debt burdens.

The Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again, a coalition of CUNY students and faculty, slammed Cuomo’s program as one that “aids middle-income students while turning poor and working-class students into a profit center, continuing the forty-year trend of reducing access for the poor to public higher education and shifting the funding burden to students” — especially coming in tandem with a planned tuition hike for CUNY schools over the next five years. For students unable to meet the terms of the Excelsior Scholarship, or ineligible for it, college only promises to get less affordable.


Public Servants Fear Trump Will Drown Them In Student Debt

Across the nation, an assortment of thirtysomething doctors, lawyers, and other young professionals are panicking. Since 2007, a federal program has promised that college graduates would be able to have their remaining student loan debt, no matter how great, forgiven after a decade of working in public-service careers. Though little known when President George W. Bush signed it into law, public-service debt forgiveness — along with other debt relief provisions of the sweeping College Cost Reduction and Access Act — soon became a lifeline to college graduates seeking to manage their staggering debt load.

But with the first cohort of student debtors about to hit the ten-year mark, there’s growing fear that the government won’t keep its promise. In recent months, reports have surfaced that some students had seen their certification requests rejected after initially being told that their jobs qualified them for debt relief — and many more had learned they’d have to keep making payments years after their expected end date. To top it all off, Republicans in D.C. have made noise about rescinding or limiting the program as a cost-cutting measure — three years after President Obama suggested capping the amount the feds would repay.

“I wasted ten years of my life making payments for absolutely nothing,” says Horacio Danovich, a civil engineer for Pompano Beach, Florida, who recently found out none of his payments since entering government service in 2003 qualified him for debt forgiveness. “The amount of money that I owe, I will never be able to repay.”

The sales pitch for public-service loan forgiveness, or PSLF, sounds simple and sweet for anyone looking to take on an expensive degree without having to scramble for a high-paying job to work it off: Take out federal student loans, make ten years of minimum payments, and then, so long as your employment is approved as “public service” by the Department of Education, the government will rip up your IOU. In the past five years, more than 1.2 million borrowers have sought certification from the DOE that they’re eligible for public-service loan forgiveness.

The first warning signs came last winter, when the American Bar Association filed suit, charging that several lawyers had had their jobs certified as public service, only to have the DOE later rescind that approval. The suit was launched after the ABA discovered that it had been removed from the approved public-service list because it’s not entirely not-for-profit — a move the association said made it hard to retain employees.

“It does seem like they’ve been changing what qualified and does not qualify,” says Natalia Abrams, executive director of Student Debt Crisis, a loan reform group founded in 2012. “I’ve spoken with law enforcement, government workers, nonprofits who work for a [501(c)(3)] — people who clearly should qualify, and then they fight it, and they get back onto the program.”

What’s ensnared even more government and nonprofit workers, though, is another provision of PSLF that many borrowers aren’t even aware of. The program is limited to students who took on a particular type of debt, federal direct student loans, introduced in 1992 but only later expanded to be the sole government-backed student loan program; the millions of borrowers who used the Federal Family Education Loan Program, one of the most popular forms of student loan prior to 2007, were ineligible.

The good news was the government offered a workaround: You could consolidate your debt as direct loans and regain your eligibility. But as debtors soon found out, there was a catch. Since PSLF required you to show ten years of payments on an eligible loan, this meant that once you consolidated your debt, your public-service clock started over.

Haylee Adamson, a probation officer in Arlington, Virginia, thought she’d found the perfect way to help pay off more than $65,000 in debt she’d accumulated while earning a master’s in forensic psychology in 2011. After getting a job with Fairfax County — for which she was paid $42,000 a year — she dutifully filed certification forms every year, and was told she would qualify for debt forgiveness.

The first warning sign came in December 2014, when she received an email from her loan servicer, FedLoan, asking if she wanted to consolidate her loans so she could be eligible for debt forgiveness. Adamson was dumbfounded: “I thought I was in this program for almost two years!” She immediately consolidated her loans, only to discover that by including loans that would have qualified, she had inadvertently reset her clock to zero, meaning she wouldn’t be eligible for any forgiveness until 2025.

“I don’t think it’s fair that you’re going to take three years of payments from me, because I have been doing what you’ve told me to do, and then you gave me wrong information,” she says.

Adamson is now surviving via Revised Pay As You Earn, one of several income-driven repayment programs implemented by the federal government since 2007. These allow student debtors to limit payments to a fixed percentage of their income and have the balance forgiven after twenty years. The program “has saved my life,” Adamson says — her $195-a-month minimum payments don’t even cover interest on her loans — but, she notes, “after everything I’ve been through with them, I don’t put it past them to just change the rules, and all of a sudden I have to pay for the rest of my life.”

She and other student debtors may have cause to worry, as there is growing talk in Washington of restricting public-service forgiveness. The Government Accountability Office startled many lawmakers last year when it issued a report showing that income-driven repayment and other forgiveness programs would cost the government $28 billion more than previously projected. The Obama administration had already proposed capping forgiveness at $57,500 — which, though far less than the accumulated debt loans of many graduate students, would have saved an estimated $6.7 billion over ten years. (Or, looked at another way, dumped an additional $6.7 billion in debt back in graduates’ laps.)

While the Republican Congress blocked Obama’s move, GOP advocates of government cost-cutting soon took up the cause. The conservative American Enterprise Institute issued a paper last year urging either capping or eliminating PSLF, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has refused to commit to upholding debt forgiveness.

Dr. Dan Galante at his workplace, Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, MD: “If they were to stop this, I think they’d see a lot less people going to underserved areas.”

The prospect of limits on loan forgiveness has been especially chilling to students who took on large loans for medical or law school and are now working in lower-paying public jobs. Dan Galante, a graduate of Touro College of Medicine in Harlem working at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, says when he first learned about PSLF back in 2007, it sounded “too good to be true.” If Congress eliminates or caps loan forgiveness, he and his wife, Diana, will suddenly be facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt — and, he says, would likely end up stopping payment and looking for a higher-paying private-sector job to have any hope of paying down his debt, as he’s seen colleagues do.

“If they were to stop this, I think they’d see a lot less people going to underserved areas,” says Galante. “Not because people don’t want to help people. But when you come out of so much training with so much debt, you have to think about yourself.”

What all sides in the debate can agree on is that the present system is a poorly implemented mess. Jason Delisle, author of the American Enterprise Institute report, who as a staffer on the Senate Budget Committee had a front-row seat for the passage of the 2007 bill, blames the political process. “If you make it complicated and opaque, it’s easier to get it passed, because people don’t know what you’re doing,” he says. “But now you’re stuck with this program that’s complicated and opaque.”

That still doesn’t explain why servicers of student loans have done such an atrocious job informing borrowers of their forgiveness rights, or why the DOE has continued to contract with them as lenders regardless. In particular, numerous public-service workers have charged FedLoan with telling them they’d soon be eligible for forgiveness, then later backtracking to say their clocks would be restarted because they had ineligible loans. Danovich, the Florida civil engineer, says that not only did FedLoan officers deny having told him he’d have his debt forgiven, but one said if he wanted to know if his loans would qualify for the program, “maybe you should have watched TV the day it was announced.”   

(Neither FedLoan nor the U.S. Department of Education had replied to Voice queries by press time.)

“I’d like to think it’s just human error,” says Student Debt Crisis’s Abrams, who suggests that any borrowers who have been unfairly turned down for debt forgiveness contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and file a claim. She points to the CFPB’s pending lawsuit against loan-servicing giant Navient for, among other things, tagging paid debts with the wrong three-digit code, miscategorizing as deliquent thousands of veterans and people with disabilities.

Even if it’s mere incompetence and not malfeasance, that’s cold comfort for public-service workers now facing many more years of payments while hoping that the loan forgiveness program lasts long enough for them to take advantage of it. “As a 22-year-old, having no experience in any of this, [a salary of] $30,000 a year sounds great,” says Adamson. “But no one ever helped me understand the amount of money I was taking out, and what that would do for the rest of my life.” She says if she’d known she’d be denied loan forgiveness, she would have made entirely different educational choices, seeking either a cheaper degree program or one that would lead to a higher-paid job.

“I feel like they just get away with whatever because no one really oversees them,” she says. “I am not trying to get out of paying my bills — I understand that I went to school, and I am responsible for that. But if you put these programs in place, help people take advantage of them.”


Free Public College Has Arrived In New York — With Some Big Catches

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to waive tuition fees for some New Yorkers at any two- or four-year state college, first covered in the Voice in February, has survived the state budget brawl — but it comes with some unexpected and alarming caveats.

The plan, called the Excelsior Scholarship, will be phased in over the next three years beginning this fall but has some noticeable differences from the $163 million program Governor Cuomo first conceived of. That version came with no major catches for those students who would be eligible for it.

Not so in the final version. The most glaring addition: a requirement that students live and work full-time in New York state following graduation for as many years as they received aid, lest their scholarship be converted into a loan they’ll have to pay back.

Officials from the governor’s office told Chalkbeat that the loan conversion was justified: If New York is going to pay for kids to go to school, then its economy ought to benefit from that investment.

“Why should New Yorkers pay for your college education and then you pick up and you move to California?” said Cuomo on a call with editorial writers from around the state, as reported in the New York Post.

But the rule could potentially mean students have to turn down opportunities — the things that a college education is supposed to create — to avoid student debt, the burden the program is meant to alleviate in the first place. Suppose a graduate wants to begin work at a job out of state, one with a higher salary, say, than what they can get here?

State officials said on Monday that they plan to include provisions that will prevent loan conversion for students who pursue advanced degrees out of state, provided they return to New York afterward. An exception will also be made for students who join the military.

“Forcing college graduates to live and work in New York is wrong. A grant should be a grant, not a loan with an escape clause,” wrote Tom Hilliard in an op-ed for the Center for an Urban Future. Other experts say that forcing participants in the plan to stay in New York incentivizes unemployment; students who can’t get a job in the state could opt to remain here, potentially on public benefits, to avoid debt instead of moving elsewhere to work and pay taxes. So far, the plan still includes no additional provisions to support colleges as they prepare for an influx of students, or to help make sure participants understand what they’re signing up for.

Though marketed as free college, the program is more accurately described as a “last dollar” plan, meaning it will award eligible students a scholarship to fill in gaps left over after they receive state and federal financial aid, including New York’s Tuition Assistance Program and Pell Grants. By 2019, any student from a family that earns up to $125,000 will be eligible to apply.

Other additions to the program include a minimum GPA requirement and on-time graduation, something many CUNY students struggle with. Students must also take fifteen credits per semester, meaning part-time students, many of whom belong to a growing sector of nontraditional students (those who work full-time, have children, care for elderly family members, or are not straight out of high school, for example), are excluded entirely. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, three-quarters of undergraduate students were not recent high school graduates in 2011, the most recent year for which such data is available. Undocumented students are also excluded. Additional money was allocated to allow students who opt to attend private universities to use the existing Tuition Assistance Program for added help, something the state senate and private college officials across the state pushed for. Those students will receive up to $3,000 and must also agree to live and work in the state after graduation.

And the final bill still does nothing to help students whose tuition is already covered in full by state and federal aid; those students are often forced to take on loans to pay for room and board, food, textbooks, and student fees — all expenses the governor’s program ignores. John Aderounmu, 20, a junior at Hunter College and member of the Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again, says many CUNY students will be ineligible.

“Not many students are going to have that gap covered because most already have their financial aid to cover their tuition,” said Aderounmu. Those students, he said, must work jobs to pay for rent or books and, as such, take fewer than the required thirty credits per year.

Other states and cities host similar programs for community colleges that come with no income restriction, no requirement to stay in the state, and considerable academic support that begins at the high school level and continues through college graduation, particularly in Tennessee. There, community college is free for any high school graduate in the state regardless of income. Oregon and the city of San Francisco have similar programs. Rhode Island is considering a bill that would make tuition free at two-year colleges only.

The Campaign to Make CUNY Free Again, a coalition of CUNY students and faculty, slammed Cuomo’s program in a release, rejecting his characterization of the program as “free college,” one which happens in tandem with a planned tuition hike for CUNY schools over the next five years. For students unable to meet the terms of the Excelsior Scholarship, college is getting less affordable.

In a release, the group said that the governor’s plan “aids middle-income students while turning poor and working-class students into a profit center, continuing the forty-year trend of reducing access for the poor to public higher education and shifting the funding burden to students.”


Albany Is A Dysfunctional Sewer But At Least Students Might Have St. Patrick’s Day Off Next Year

The state legislature has roughly a week to come up with a budget that sets New York’s legislative priorities. Raise the Age reform, which would prevent the state from charging 16 and 17-year-old kids as adults, passed in the Assembly but languishes in the Senate, where Republicans have blocked it. Substantive ethics reform, touted by Governor Cuomo in his state of the state speech, is a distant memory (a Republican state senator was charged with corruption on Thursday morning). Upstate Republicans are moving to punish New York by shifting Medicaid costs from the federal government to the state, all while “Trumpcare” is poised to leave millions uninsured and millions more with higher premiums. But the State Senate did manage to pass one bill this week: S6747A would make St. Patrick’s Day a holiday in New York City public schools.

The bill, sponsored by Queens Senator Tony Avella, a member of the controversial Independent Democratic Caucus, is tailored specifically to districts home to more than one million students; New York City is the only district in the state that qualifies.

Avella touted the holiday’s significance as a celebration of Irish culture and heritage.

“Two years ago when we passed the Lunar New Year school holiday…it occurred to me, all these years we have had St. Patrick’s Day in New York City, it’s a huge holiday not just for the Irish but for all New Yorkers. Why have we never given consideration to making that a school holiday?” Avella told the Voice. “If anyone deserved to have a holiday based on long standing tradition, it certainly is the Irish-American community.”

In February 2016, city teacher Frank Schorn filed a civil rights suit against the Department of Education, claiming that their scheduling of parent teacher conferences on St. Patrick’s Day violated his right to march in the massive parade up Fifth Avenue. City Council’s Irish Caucus had repeatedly asked the Department to reschedule, and they refused.

Mayor de Blasio refused to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade for two years after organizers banned gay and lesbian organizations from marching under their banners. The mayor ended his boycott this year.

De Blasio campaigned on promises to add three religious holidays to the school calendar, which has long observed Christian and Jewish holidays, and the sacred Muslim holidays Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, as well as the Lunar New Year, celebrated by many of the city’s Chinese families, were added in 2015.

Avella also sponsored a bill to add Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, to the school calendar. It has yet to make it out of committee.

“Once we did Lunar New Year, we set the precedent that if you’re going to celebrate holidays particular to one group or another you have to be fair to all, and that’s something the city of New York is going to have to look at,” said Avella.

The first St. Patrick’s Day parade actually happened in colonial New York City, in 1762. Successive waves of Irish immigration to the city over the next 35 years brought several small-scale iterations of the parades organized by Irish groups and, in 1848, they merged.

Through the decades, the Americanized version of the holiday became associated with binge drinking and violence. In 1867, the New York Times described the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade as a “riot” where “swords and spears” were in use. In 1894, a headline read: “The Death Rate Increased By The St. Patrick’s Day Parade.” The St. Patrick’s Day parade eventually became emblematic of growing Irish political power. Today, the parade is mostly secular, attended by New Yorkers of many ethnicities and backgrounds.

Still, Avella insists that the religious focus of St. Patrick’s Day has emerged over the last decade as the predominant motivation for celebration, and insisted that a day off from school was not akin to condoning the sorts of behavior commonly associated with the holiday.

“It was a problem decades ago with St. Patrick’s Day being associated with drinking, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” said Avella. “Obviously school-aged drinking is illegal. I think it’s a party celebration and that doesn’t mean that because we give a school holiday that should encourage any sort of illegal drinking or drinking to excess…[the parade] is clearly not what it was like 10 or 20 years ago.”

He cited increased “education” on the holiday’s true meaning for what he calls a reduction in vice, though he didn’t provide examples of what kind of education, or where and when it happened. Avella insisted that St. Patrick’s Day is a holy day of obligation in which practicing Catholics are required to attend mass.

According to Mercedes Lopez Blanco, who works in the communications office at the Archdiocese of New York, St. Patrick’s Day does appear on the Catholic liturgical calendar and attending daily mass is encouraged, but not required, even on St. Patrick’s Day.

“On certain days we honor certain saints and March 17 happens to be the day St. Patrick is honored on the liturgical calendar,” said Lopez Blanco. “A mention is made in that mass and that mass is said with him in mind.”