I have been organizing parents and families in New York City since 1996. As the father of three kids in the Northwest Bronx, I had no idea how important it was to get involved in your child’s education so early. When my son was in Kindergarten I remember joking “What do I have to get involved for, all he’s doing is finger painting and taking naps”. Like many new parents in the New York City public school system I was naïve, I actually thought that if you brought your child to school washed, in neat clothes and ready to learn everyday, that he would get a good education. I found out the hard way that is a common misconception. In May of 1996 I learned that due to overcrowding my son’s class would be the final Kindergarten class in our local school. This was troubling because I had two girls who were just about ready to start school. “No Kindergarten?” I asked, “Where would my girls go to school?” the answer I received was even more troubling.
Apparently the district was so overcrowded that the only place for my oldest daughter who was four at the time was a school over at the Southeast corner of the district. Now let me tell you, at the time District 10 was geographically the second largest district in the State of New York (the entire City of Buffalo was the largest district) and the second most overcrowded. It was appalling to me and many other parents that our children were to be bussed four miles away from our neighborhood to attend Kindergarten. It was heart wrenching enough when we dropped our son off on the first day of school and he cried “Daddy, please don’t leave me”, how was I going to face my daughter who suffered from motion sickness as she was taken from the only neighborhood she had ever known.
Another parent and I decided to take action, we were going to fight this, so we reached out to the editor of our local community newspaper and he told us about this community based organization called the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) that had been fighting for tenants rights for over twenty years and felt that they might be able to help. Now I had never been involved in any type of community organizing, but we met with their Education organizer and he helped us write a petition to stop the bussing of our children.
We took that petition and went all over our neighborhood and collected over 1,500 signatures in only three days. When I went back to our organizer with the signatures he was shocked, I said “Is that not good enough, we can go back and get more if you need them”, apparently that was pretty good because he thought we should have a meeting with district officials right away. At that first meeting I am proud to say we had 69 parents turn out, unfortunately it was too late in the game and the deal had already gone through. Every parent at that meeting turned to me and said “You see Ronn, you can’t fight City Hall”, but I have never been one to take no for an answer, so while all of those parents gave in, a fire was lit inside of me that has yet to go out. I knew that the District was not going to beat me. I just had to figure out a way to force their hand.
So the District had won the battle but I knew they wouldn’t win the war. I was down but not defeated, but I also knew that I had an ace as a hole card. You see in New York City Kindergarten is not mandatory, it’s optional. I knew I wasn’t going to make my four year old daughter get on a bus in front of our zoned school and proceed to get sick every morning for 10 months. There was no way I would allow that, so I bought “Hooked on Phonics’ and decided to teach her myself and because that was our zoned school, I knew that they had to accept her for 1st grade when she turned five years old.
Now that fixed the issue but the problem was still there and I knew that I had to do something before my youngest was ready for Kindergarten. So I went back to the NWBCCC and found out that they had an Education committee, made up of parents just like me who were fed up with the injustice that was being done to our kids.
I am happy to say that in 1998, just two years after the start of this campaign, we won 3,000 new seats in our school district. Which amounted to the construction of six NEW buildings and two leased spaces to reduce overcrowding. Our school district remains one of the most overcrowded districts in the State of New York but we are working to make it better everyday and to all of you who said “You can’t fight City Hall”, I say “You can if you’re organized and have a real passion to make change”. Click here for more information on our organization Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition