De Blasio defends city’s work on education at town hall

By Madina Toure

Speaking before a capacity crowd at PS 69 in Jackson Heights for 2 1/2 hours last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio fielded questions about the Common Core opt-out movement, class size, school overcrowding and high suspension rates for minority students.

More than 200 residents, teachers and community leaders listened as de Blasio rattled off his administration’s educational achievements at the town-hall meeting Nov. 12, the second he has held since taking office in 2014. City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) sponsored the town hall and other elected officials attended.

Although the town hall was scheduled to last two hours, de Blasio agreed to speak for an additional 30 minutes to address all the residents’ concerns.

De Blasio said more than 65,000 children across New York City are in full-day pre-K, noting that there are 54 children in full-day pre-K at PS 69.

“The top thing is education and I always said we could not change our schools without starting at the very beginning of our children’s education,” de Blasio said.

He also said that over the next five years, the city is investing nearly $3.5 billion to build new capacity to address school overcrowding.

A public school parent wondered if the mayor understands the real reasons for the Common Core opt-out movement.

De Blasio said the city has moved away from high-stakes testing but cautioned that non-participation in tests could translate into less federal funding.

“We take that very seriously and I think the more productive thing we can do together is to try to change the underlying policies,” he said.

In response to a question about trailers being used as classrooms, de Blasio said the city has a $490 million initiative over the next five years, with most of the funding focused on replacing trailers with permanent facilities.

“We’re committed to, school by school, getting rid of the trailers but we’re not going to lie about the fact that it takes a while because there’s real physical challenges,” he said.

He also defended the city’s decision to keep school safety agents under the NYPD and stressed that suspensions are “down quite a bit,” noting that the city has balanced safety needs with not using discipline unfairly.

A former member of the Community Education Council for District 24, which covers Jackson Heights, asked for better cooperation between the CECs and the city Department of Education. He said the District 24 CEC had requested that the Pan American Hotel be used as a school but the DOE deemed the hotel suitable for homeless family shelters and expressed his opposition to mayoral control.

De Blasio praised the work of CECs and said mayoral control allowed him to guarantee a seat in after-school programs for all middle-school students.

The administration wants to have all children reading at grade level by the third grade within the next 10 years and make computer science education available to all children. He also said there will be free SAT tests for every high-school junior and that every high school now has Advanced Placement courses.

Current educational issues stem from mistakes made in educational policy over the years, he said.

“We wanted our kids to go farther and farther, but we weren’t willing to train our teachers properly,” he said. “We weren’t willing to do early childhood education. We weren’t willing to do the investments to make sure that they were reading on grade level by third grade.”

Reach reporter Madina Toure by e-mail at mtoure@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4566.