At Faneuil Hall, parents rally for better schools

Decrying lackluster education around the state and calling on new leaders to do better, activists and students rallied in front of Faneuil Hall Thursday morning.

The rally was organized by Families for Excellent Schools, a group new to Massachusetts that has put pressure on the mayor of New York City for his opposition to new charter schools.

Raiyan Syed, the Massachusetts director of FES, told the News Service "bold, transformational changes are needed," provided no specifics about any potential legislative solutions, and said schools should have extended learning time and more autonomy.

Tonya Morris, a parent of five, told the crowd about the struggles one of her sons has faced.

"When he was in the eighth grade, he said, 'Ma, how do you spell street?'" Morris said. "My son was passed through from eighth grade to senior year. At 18, he dropped out. Now he's applying for jobs with no high school diploma, no GED and he reads on a sixth-grade level."

Organizers say 77,000 students in the state are attending failing schools, where fewer than one in three students can either read or do math at grade level. According to Syed 150 schools are failing, and the problem is pronounced in the cities of Holyoke, Springfield, Brockton, Worcester and New Bedford.

Morris told the News Service her 27-year-old daughter had attended school in Brockton, where she benefitted from the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, before going on to graduate from college. Morris said two sons had dropped out, including her 18-year-old that she spoke about from the stage, and she has two younger children.

Morris, who said her 18-year-old attended school in New Bedford and Cambridge before going to Dorchester High School, said she had been involved in his education and frustrated at the schools - where her son opted against an individualized education plan.

"Why is he in the back of class?" Morris said she would ask educators. She said her son was looking for work, was only able to fill out the top part of job applications, and asked her how to spell Dorchester. Morris said she graduated from South Boston High School and said it appeared little had changed in the district since her schooling.

The crowd, which organizers claimed numbered 2,000, included many students. Syed said the students were part of civic programs in local schools, which he said include both public and charter institutions.

Roused by music, including Lil Jon's "Turn Down for What" the students and parents in the audience cheered and chanted along with the emcee, Kipp Academy Boston Dean of Students Nikki Barnes.

"Keep those hands in the air," intoned Barnes, who said she "always wanted to be a DJ" and instructed the students to promote the cause on social media. She said, "For 50 years our state hasn't addressed this silent crisis, but guess what? We're still hopeful."

The amplified words of the speakers echoed off the concrete of City Hall across the street, and speakers made appeals to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who took office in January, and Governor-elect Charlie Baker, who will take office in January.

A Baker spokesman noted that during the campaign Baker advocated for lifting the cap on charter schools, sharing best practices to boost performance of other schools, and said he would increase early education in districts that are struggling.

Walsh received a college degree late in his career, was on the board of a charter school in his neighborhood, and has said he would make high-quality education throughout the city a priority.

Syed told the News Service the rally was not to generate support for lifting the cap on charter schools in certain districts - a proposal included in legislation that was voted down by the Senate over the summer. He said the policies that work at successful schools should be spread to other schools.

Families for Excellent Schools is based in New York and backed by Wall Street financiers. Cambridge native Jeremiah Kittredge and Syed are both registered as lobbyists for Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy. The group ran $5 million in television advertisements against New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio, who had threatened to block the opening of charter schools.

Sheyla Negron, a mother who was the first in her family to attend college, said she was "unprepared" for higher education even though she had received straight A's in Boston schools.

Parents spoke with desperation about the need for a quality education system to provide avenues to success to their children.

"I know the reality for black men. Without a great education, the chances of a young black male making it in society are slim," said Stacy Marlow, of Mattapan. "Without a great education the doors of opportunity for our sons close much faster. As a mother, I'm afraid."

"I know there are others who know my pain. Do you feel me?" said Morris. She said, "I refuse to lose my son to the streets, and I know that he is capable of so much."


Subscribe to the Dorchester Reporter