After a contentious summer, it finally seemed like progress was being made at Williamsburg’s PS 132, an elementary school at 320 Manhattan Ave. During a Zoom call on September 2, Principal Beth Lubeck outlined the school’s commitment to anti-racist, gender inclusive education with tangible actions to be undertaken. This included a partnership with the Center for Racial Justice in Education and working with the Office of Student Enrollment to desegregate the school’s Gifted and Talented program. Yet months later, some parents say that the school has done little, if anything, to fulfill these promises, and that Principal Lubeck has fostered a climate of obstructionism.
The September 2020 Zoom call was a long time coming. For years, many parents had been working to address a school atmosphere they felt did not effectively address the needs of a diverse group of children, only to be met with resistance from higher ups. Like other institutions across the country, tensions reached the tipping point this summer. On June 3, shortly after George Floyd was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, PS 132’s Parent Teacher Association created a Facebook post in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The school administration asked the PTA to remove the image, deeming it “too political” and wanted the PTA to issue a corrective in the form of a post expressing respect for all lives instead.
For many parents, this forced neutrality was the last straw, and the group Parents for Change was soon formed. The group created a petition in order to hold the school responsible for what they saw as a long-standing history of racial bias, both in the curriculum and within the school’s administrators themselves. The petition received over 4,000 signatures, and an Instagram account also created that month documenting anonymous accounts of racism and bias from current and former parents and students alike gained traction.
Not everyone, however, agreed that the school atmosphere was charged with racial animus. An anonymous counter petition emerged in response, which itself amassed over 1,000 signatures. “We feel our children are well taken care of and safe when they are under the care of the staff of P.S. 132,” the counter petition states, “Our school offers a rich curriculum which supports and meets the needs of every child.” The counter petition further claims that these accusations of racism are “based on personal opinion, driven by personal agendas, that do not speak the truth of our entire school community.”
Since the events of last summer, Parents for Change decided to retain legal counsel from Mobilization for Justice, an organization that provides free legal assistance for various social justice related causes. Their goal was not the pursuit of litigation, but rather, that lawyers could be the muscle the group needed in order to hold PS 132 accountable to their promises.
In a recent letter to the city’s Department of Education, Andrew Gerst and Todd Silverblatt, attorneys representing Parents for Change, renew the group’s request for a meeting with education leaders in North Brooklyn and propose a timeline of implementation. Parents for Change say that they have not received a response from any school administrator or higher ups since their attorneys sent the letter via email on February 3rd, including from Principal Lubeck, Brooklyn North Executive Superintendent Karen Watts, and Community School District 14 Superintendent Alicja Winnicki.
The most recent communication Parents for Change received was a January 5th email from Kereen Evans-McKay, counsel representing the NY Department of Education. In it, Evans-McKay claims that the school is underway in forming the Anti-Bias Anti-Racism Committee, “pending budget approval for an equity coach to oversee the committee.” Parents for Change dismisses the idea of an equity coach as “made up,” not a position for which they ever advocated and a further unnecessary obstruction to progress. “That is just another obstacle so they can take even longer to do anything. It’s just [Principal Lubeck] trying to put everything out of her control, like ‘Well, I want to do this, but I can’t…” says Kenyatta Reid, a member of Parents for Change. It’s a tactic they’ve seen time and time again. “Even when I was in her diversity and equity committee in school, every time there was time to bring up conversation and create some action on how to change our school culture, it then became ‘We have to read this book first.’ Then she gave us this huge book that we had to read first before anything could happen.” Reid calls her time on the committee “uncomfortable,” “exhausting,” and “traumatizing,” having to constantly address issues that were met with silence instead of the school taking the families’ lived experiences at face value.
One such commitment highlighted in the September Zoom call was to establish a partnership with the Center for Racial Justice in Education (CRJE). CRJE is a New York-based organization whose mission is “to train and empower educators to dismantle patterns of racism and injustice in our schools and communities.” They offer different opportunities to learn about racial justice within the educational world, including consultations, trainings, and year-long partnerships. Though PS 132 met with CRJE leadership in October 2020, Mobilization for Justice lawyers allege that “[n]o CRJE trainings at P.S. 132 have taken place during the 2020-2021 school year.”
Furthermore, Parents for Change independently reached out to CRJE this past January and obtained a copy of the formalized Proposal of Work that the Center had drafted. The proposed sequence includes a specialized training for the senior leadership team, and workshops on talking about race, both in the classroom, and for parents. The fee structure would amount to either $7,500 or $13,500, depending on whether the school decided to participate in the shorter or longer sessions. The attorneys at Mobilization for Justice also claim that P.S 132 might have already received $20,000 for use in these training sessions. It is not yet clear if this money was received, and if it was, to what end, if any, it was put to use. Parents for Change say Principal Lubeck has been touting this partnership to prospective parents as a selling point to recruit new families, despite the reality of the partnership being in name only. Nathaniel Styer of the NY Department of Education tells Greenpointers that PS 132 is currently working on scheduling these trainings.
After months of trying to engage in meaningful dialogue about racial justice, Parents for Change felt like there was ample time for PS 132 to take a more robust approach to Black History Month. “It far exceeded what was done before,” says parent Amanda Faust, cautiously, “But they were giving these kids lengthy slide packages with different read alouds, different guests speaking. It was like a ‘one size fits all’ for Pre-K through 5th grade. How substantive can you be if you’re teaching in that way?” Kenyatta Reid adds: “For example, my child’s teachers were very uncomfortable using the word ‘Black’ and instead used ‘Person of Color.’ Instead of a ‘Black’ history lesson, it was a ‘People of Color’ history lesson.” Kim Gabriel, another parent from the group, echoes these sentiments. “Hearing some of the things they were talking about, it was too young for my second grader. I’m not sure which class it was, but in one of my students’ classes, they were reading a story, which I think is a great story, especially for younger grades, about hair. And one of the students said ‘I don’t understand why this is part of Black Lives Matter, why are we learning about this for Black History Month?’ And the teacher just said ‘I don’t know. This is what I’ve been told to teach.’” Parents For Change stressed that they don’t wish to put undue blame on the teachers, many of whom feel hamstrung by the constraints of the administration and are doing their best to make sense of the mixed messages they’re receiving. “There was no context given for the teachers either,” adds Gabriel, “It felt tokenizing to me, to ask the three or four Black teachers who work at our school to create this curriculum for the 700 students from ages 4 to 11 seems a little bit misguided.” The group also indicated that while there seems to be teachers who are privately sympathetic to the group’s mission, they do not want to speak out for fear of retaliation.
The school had also made promises to address gender-inclusive education initiatives. According to Nathaniel Styer of the DOE, PS 132 provided trainings from GLSEN and the Ackerman Institute this past fall and introduced the LGBTQ+ Alliance to the student body. But not everyone feels like that PS 132 is a safe space for gender expression yet. On February 11, during a virtual CEC meeting comprising multiple schools in the neighborhood, a PTA member and former member of Parents for Change spewed anti-trans rhetoric against “transgenders in the bathroom” which ended up being directed at the child of a Parents for Change member. This has been coupled with an ongoing campaign of transphobia some parents are waging at nearby PS 147.
These issues are district-wide, and while Parents for Change believe that Principal Lubeck should be held accountable for what goes on at their school, the ultimate responsibility lies with Superintendent Winnicki, who they say has turned a blind eye to racial and gender bias district-wide.
“I think that Beth Lubeck, back in June of 2020 when we first spoke out, seriously underestimated the seriousness with which the DOE would take our claims,” says Daniel O’Connell, another member of Parents for Change, “Her reflex in the first month, month and half was not to reach out, not to say ‘People are harmed here, I’m going to acknowledge the tension, let’s get something together and talk.’ Her reflex was to join together with the then existing board – I was on it, Kenyatta was on it – they excluded us summarily, kicked us off Slack and then Beth facilitated a campaign that was defamatory that accused us of being cyberbullies, of harassment, there were vague threats that people were going to the police…the truth is that their failure to retract that is actually an investigation that’s going on by the Office of Special Investigations. We still have not received an apology for those false accusations.”
In a statement to Greenpointers, Nathaniel Styer writes: “We support all of our schools in centering anti-racism at the core of their work with young people and we continue to support PS 132 as they deepen their engagement in this area. The school is working to provide thorough anti-bias and anti-racism trainings to school leadership, staff, and parents, while strengthening their culturally responsive curriculum and providing all of their students with an excellent, equitable education.”
Parents for Change has received support from many elected officials in North Brooklyn, including Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, Council Member Stephen Levin, and State Senator Julia Salazar. “One of the reasons we went out in a far more public way in 2020 was that we understood very, very well that working within the system at the hand of Beth Lubeck was not going to work,” says O’Connell “We absolutely needed to publicize and go to the DOE and stop working quietly inside because it’s just a system that is not functional.” In a March 11th email to Principal Lubeck, members of the School Leadership Team revealed plans to retain an education lawyer. The possibility of litigation is not off the table anymore.