The experience of El-Melek Moore’s two children at Williamsburg’s PS 132 is a tale of two realities.
Moore’s daughter, a Black child and one of the best readers in her cohort, is thriving in her Gifted and Talented class whose demographics skew white and Asian. Moore’s son, a Black child with learning disabilities, has experienced racism in a classroom populated mainly by children of color, she alleges.
Her son was also worse off when her kids attended a majority Black elementary school in Park Slope, but his time at PS 132 smacks uniquely of bias, Moore says.
“I didn’t have anybody grabbing him. I didn’t have anybody pulling him out. I didn’t have anybody yelling at his face. I didn’t have him coming home without a coat. I didn’t have somebody throwing a phone at me. I didn’t have anybody trying to create him into having a behavioral problem,” she said. “All of those things are textbook [racism].”
Moore’s experience, a group of parents at PS 132 contend, reflects systemic bias at the elementary school where white children make up a little less than half the student body. Shortly after George Floyd’s death in late May, they released a petition calling on the school’s administration to “dismantle institutionalized racism.” However, this petition, its demands and the fallout after its release has divided PS 132’s parents. Even statements of fact are in dispute. In many ways, the conflict mirrors recent conversations on race that have roiled educational institutions nationwide, including high schools and universities.
A Checkered Past?
PS 132 has a recent history of not prioritizing racial equity, allege PS 132 Parents for Change, the group behind the petition, despite arguments from other parents to the contrary.
“I remember my mom begging me to not put my kid in that school,” Kenyatta Reid, a Black parent at the elementary school, vice president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and one of the petition’s authors, said in an interview with Greenpointers.
Kristin Schiele, a parent at PS 132, also claims she’s seen examples of the school’s apathy towards racial justice.
When Schiele, an artist, offered to do a free silk screening event in support of Black Lives Matter this past January for the school’s children, the administration declined her proposal.
“The administration is not open minded enough,” she said, explaining that another school in the neighborhood was more than willing to host the event.
Other parents feel that allegations of systemic bias and racism just don’t jibe with their own experiences.
“Our experience with PS 132 has been tremendous given its incredibly diverse student body and a group of educators who care deeply not just about our children’s intellectual advancement but their entire well-being,” said Ryan Zagata, a parent at the school, in an email.
In fact, a counter petition is circulating in support of the elementary school’s administration and teachers, which has garnered more than 1,000 signatures to date.
“P.S. 132 administration, teachers and staff members provide a nurturing, peaceful, safe, loving environment for EVERY CHILD,” wrote the petition’s authors, who remain anonymous.
In a statement, the Department of Education (DOE) did not confirm whether racism is a problem at the elementary school.
“We know that it is critical that all of our students have access to a strong, supportive, just, anti-racist educational system and their classrooms reflect the diversity of the city,” said the department’s spokesperson, Katie O’Hanlon.
Is the Administration Suppressing Speech?
Long simmering complaints of bias—subdued during the pandemic—reached new heights after the school’s administration allegedly tried to censor the PTA following the death of George Floyd. Yet, parents and administrators dispute the spark that set off a firestorm of activism.
According to the petition, Yvonne Bach, the school’s parent coordinator, reached out to the PTA and asked members to take down a social media post of a black square with names of those “murdered by the police” and replace it with “one that expressed respect for all lives.”
When members of the PTA board, Daniel O’Connell and Kenyata Reid, read a message describing the call, they were incensed.
“I think it was the final straw for a lot of people after years of trying to do something,” said John Jurayj, a parent at PS 132 and member of PS 132 Parents for Change.
However, like the dispute over whether the elementary school has allowed racism to persist in its administration and core of teachers, some contest the petition’s version of events.
“This group, over the course of their internal discussions, decided that they would create the narrative that we were suppressed when that actually didn’t happen,” said David Magdaleno, a parent at PS 132 and interim PTA treasurer. “It is a little sad to think that we are focusing on this negativity that is divisive rather than focusing on how to work together on these matters openly.”
He noted that the PTA had already posted messages in support of Black Lives Matter prior to when Bach allegedly asked for a post that “expressed respect for all lives” and was under the impression that she was merely relaying feedback from other parents.
“Non [sic] of the statements made by Mr. Jurayj, Ms. Reid or Mr. O’Connell [three of the petition’s authors] have any foundation in facts and are completely untrue.” said Yvonne Bach in an email to the head of the DOE, Chancellor Richard Carranza.
Social Media Warfare
After PS 132 Parents for Change released their demands to the public, group members launched a social media blitz, commenting on the PTA’s accounts to garner attention in a campaign that quickly turned bitter.
— ChangePS132BK (@BkPs132) July 12, 2020
When Carola Boada, a parent at PS 132 whose partner was on the PTA board clicked on a link to the petition on Instagram and read through it, she didn’t agree with a number of its requests, which include desegregating teaching faculty by only hiring “Black and Brown” teachers and desegregating all classes.
“I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to hire by race,” she wrote on Instagram, according to screenshots of the conversation.
“The real problem is that nationwide children of certain races are falling behind, and you don’t fix that by forcing the school to pretend [sic] is not happening by arranging classrooms… by race,” she continued in a further comment.
The exchange turned contentious, and Kenyatta Reid threatened to let people know that Boada and her husband’s business does “not support BLM or anti racism at PS132 [sic],” according to further screenshots of the altercation.
The PTA soon took down its Twitter and Instagram accounts. An arm of the DOE advised the nonprofit to “temporarily suspend all social media accounts and platforms” after the PTA had “received complaints from several of our Instagram followers that they felt harassed, threatened, and pressured,” per an email sent to parents at PS 132.
In an interview, Boada made clear that she supports the Black Lives Matter movement, but thinks the authors of the petition missed the mark.
“I agree with their overall goals, but I don’t agree with their proposed methods to achieve them,” she said.
Another parent at PS 132, who requested anonymity because of how contentious the dialogue surrounding the petition had become, echoed Boada’s sentiments.
“We need to have this dialogue,” she said. “But I thought that some of the demands were a little too extreme.”
Where the Petition Stands Now
The petition, which has close to 4,000 signatures to date, has undoubtedly attracted the DOE’s attention.
After releasing their demands in mid-June, members of PS 132 Parents for Change met with Superintendent Alicja Winnicki. However, they found her response dissatisfactory, and then escalated the conversation to the executive superintendent of North Brooklyn, who asked that parents work with the administration to implement their demands. Members of the group also couldn’t stomach her response, since they’ve already been lobbying the administration to realize change for years.
Now, they’re reaching out to elected officials and hope to bring the conversation to Chancellor Carranza. They’ve received a statement of support from Council Member Antonio Reynoso, plan to meet with Senator Julia Salazar and are in conversation with Council Member Stephen Levin and Assemblyman Joseph Lentol’s offices. The group also recently started an Instagram campaign cataloguing anonymous complaints about racism and bias at the school.
"I stand with the parents and community members of P.S. 132 students in their demands for measures to promote a more just and equitable learning experience at the school." Full statement: pic.twitter.com/dipWS4ztmI
— Antonio Reynoso (@CMReynoso34) July 9, 2020
The DOE acknowledged that they’re in talks with PS 132 Parents for Change as well as representatives who wrote the other petition in support of the elementary school.
“School, District and Central leaders and representatives have met with each of these groups to discuss concerns and explore ways we can productively have frank and difficult conversations,” said the DOE’s spokesperson, Katie O’Hanlon.
Race in America (and Williamsburg)
The conflict at PS 132 is just one example of how allegations of racism and bias have challenged educational institutions throughout the city and nation.
In the city, parents and teachers have penned an open letter that asks for the removal of a superintendent in southern Brooklyn, alleging she’s ignored claims of racism in her district for years.
And black alumnae from elite, all girls schools in Manhattan like Chapin, Brearley and Spence have also vocalized allegations of abuse and mistreatment while enrolled at these monied institutions.
Even Catholic schools across the country are having a reckoning about their schools’ curriculum and its lack of emphasis on Black Catholics and the church’s historical links to slavery and segregation.
Many feel that now is the moment to challenge acts of racism that have bubbled underneath the surface for years. And for parents at PS 132 advocating for change, they’re not afraid to ruffle a few feathers in what some see as a slash-and-burn campaign to advance their petition’s demands.
“It’s not personal in the end. It’s about systemic racism,” John Jurayj, one of the parents behind the petition, said.