Parents get rid of the school bully

May 18, 2017

After a long fight, parents and teachers who organized for justice at an East Harlem public school have won an inspiring victory, explains Peter Lamphere.

IN A historic victory for parent and teacher activists, the abusive principal of Central Park East 1 (CPE1) in New York City has been forced out.

Monika Garg, the controversial principal, has left the school after a yearlong battle, and both of the teachers who had been unjustly removed from the classroom--the school's union delegate and chapter leader--have been cleared of all charges.

Parents have led an impressive struggle over the past 18 months, organizing a range of protests that included street demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns and petitions signed by a large majority of families at the school and thousands of supporters.

The campaign culminated in an overnight occupation of the school after an April 6 school leadership meeting, followed by a "family strike" a month later when the parents of 80 children pulled their kids from classes for one day.

In retaliation for the parents organizing the sit-in and other protests, Garg banned two lead organizers, Kaliris Salas-Ramirez and Jen Roesch, from dropping off and picking up their special-needs children from the classroom and attending meetings on school grounds.

Parents and teachers rally to save CPE1 in East Harlem
Parents and teachers rally to save CPE1 in East Harlem

During her reign of just two years, Garg tore at the fabric of this progressive East Harlem school. She opened investigations of every single one of the teachers she didn't hire and created a hostile work environment, causing a mass exodus of veteran staffers. Yet not a single one of the charges she pursued was substantiated.

In the course of these investigations, she interviewed young children without parental notification or consent, angering many parents. She also pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy to pit veteran teachers and against newer hires, and sow racial divisions among parents at the school, one of the most integrated in a highly segregated system.

She also initiated investigations of two teachers, Marilyn Martinez and Catlin Preston, who have been fully exonerated by independent arbitrators. As a further measure of how far Garg had overstepped, such exonerations only occur in 4 percent of cases across the New York City school system.

In an unprecedented turn of events, Martinez was returned to the classroom just two days after the arbitrator's ruling, while Preston is still awaiting final clearance to return to the school--something parents are continuing to clamor for.

MASS MOBILIZATION was crucial to securing this outcome. In an extraordinary show of support, more than 100 parents and United Federation of Teachers (UFT) members attended the hearings for Martinez over the course of a few days earlier this year.

Teachers also mobilized to pressure the UFT leadership to take the struggle at CPE1 seriously, repeatedly attending sessions of the UFT executive board to make their case.

"The larger story," says executive board representative Arthur Goldstein, "is the incredible activism of the CPE 1 community. They stood strong against an abusive and power-hungry principal. They never wavered, despite ridiculous pressure placed on their teachers and even their parents."

Goldstein is a member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators, a caucus in the union that has argued for the UFT to build strength among members by taking on abusive administrators.

The repeated efforts to engage the executive board eventually got the personal attention of the top UFT leadership and alerted them to the importance of the case--although leadership-aligned executive board members still applauded a handful of Garg supporters who came to criticize those who protested the principal.

Martinez, who returned to class on May 15, said:

Being exonerated brought all sorts of emotions for me, and happiness wasn't one of them. This process is dehumanizing...We have much work to do to create a more balanced and equitable system. There is no reason for the threshold for teachers to be much higher than that of principals and superintendents.

Last week, after the family strike, the office of New York City Public Advocate Letitia James expressed concern about Garg's restriction on parent access and pledged to take up the issue.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, however, still seemed unconvinced about the situation. According to a report in the New York Times, as late as May 11, he seemed to remain neutral, telling reporters at a press conference that the heated debate had split both parents and teachers, and that the most vocal group didn't have "a monopoly on the truth."

But parents kept up the pressure, appearing on a near-daily basis throughout the city at eight of the mayor's events, with banners and chants calling for justice.

On Friday, May 12, the Department of Education announced that Martinez would be returned to her classroom, and Garg was assigned a new supervisor, Dolores Esposito, who would serve as the Acting Superintendent of CPE1, taking away control from Alexandra Estrella, the District 4 superintendent who had backed Garg and other abusive administrators.

On May 15, Martinez re-entered the school for the first time in three months to cheers from parents and students, and later that day, Esposito informed parents and staff that Garg had taken a new position with the Department of Education.

CPE1 WAS founded more than 40 years ago to give underprivileged kids a chance at education using unorthodox and progressive pedagogical methods. The school's founder, Deborah Meier, became a prominent educator, winning a coveted MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 1987.

Meier, who is in retirement now, voiced support for the parents and their struggle to remove Garg. "I'm unequivocally on the side of those who wisely have concluded that the current principal must move on," she said last year. "She cannot do the job required."

Garg, however, circulated articles arguing that progressive education wasn't appropriate for children of color, trying to undermine and divide parents.

Parents and teachers are now strategizing about the next phase in their struggle to defend child-centered progressive education in the face of the corporate "reform" offensive that emphasizes high-stakes standardized testing.

Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, the PTA president, was excited about the recent victories, especially now that one of the school's popular teachers is returning to the classroom. "Having Marilyn back gives us a sense of hope that the system is not so broken, empowerment going forward for the work we need to do to rebuild, and relief that our children have their beloved teacher back to provide them with what they need," she said.

Yet she still expressed concern about the future:

We are filled with cautious positivity as we can now focus on rebuilding and healing the school. But the Department of Education has a long way to go to restore trust as we are still missing one of our teachers, and the letters limiting parent access have not been rescinded.

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