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Education, by Rights

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Parents and educators propose an innovative approach to fixing New York’s public schools: rebuild the system using human rights.

Students at El Puente Academy
El Puente Academy students work on portfolios. Instead of a focus on high-stakes testing, students demonstrate their mastery and document community projects in portfolios, which are like mini-theses incorporating research, writing and a formal presentation. The goal is for students to use the knowledge and skills they learn in the classroom to achieve social justice in their own community.

The El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice is a New York City high school that focuses on the holistic development of young people so that they can become informed and inspired leaders in the struggle for human rights. The curriculum reflects this focus, with an emphasis on community development projects, non-violence, and social change.

The El Puente Academy was created in 1993 to reflect the values, practices, and culture of the community in which it is located. Under the leadership of Frances Lucerna, the founding principal, the school developed an integrated curriculum that teaches young people to use the knowledge and skills they learn in the classroom to achieve social justice and human rights in their own community.

The students' community projects become part of their portfolios and are used to measure their academic progress. One senior class, for example, used math, along with research and organizing skills, to create a community garden in an abandoned lot in their community.

As the first public high school for human rights, the Academy has been recognized and studied as a national model. When the school was first founded, students were required to take New York state graduation tests and consistently scored among the highest in the state. The Academy has a graduation rate of over 85 percent and nearly all graduates go on to college. As a result of its success, the school has received permission from the New York State Education Department to grade students based on their portfolios rather than their test scores.

Human Rights and Schools

Inspired by examples such as El Puente, the Independent Commission on Public Education (ICOPE) in September 2005 began building a citywide dialogue about how to re-design the failing New York City public school system to guarantee the human rights of students, their parents, and communities.

According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, 45 percent of fourth graders in New York City schools are reading below grade level. Less than 40 percent of high school students are graduating in four years.

For students of color, graduation rates are even lower—only 32 percent of African-American and 30 percent of Latino students are graduating on time, compared to 58 percent of white students.

Students face policies, practices, and conditions that stifle their development and disengage them from learning. Schools lack adequate resources, forcing students to struggle to learn in sub-standard facilities and over-crowded classrooms. A focus on high-stakes testing has narrowed the content of education and pressed teachers into a test-driven curriculum. Abusive discipline policies create destructive school climates and push youth out of school.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes that children have the right to a quality education that develops their full personality and potential, not an education that limits their ability to learn, violates their dignity, and fails to graduate half of our children. These conditions reflect the same economic inequalities and institutional racism in U.S. society that deny some communities the right to decent housing and health care.

For decades, attempts to reform this broken school system have failed. Since 2002, when the New York State Legislature gave Mayor Michael Bloomberg control over this vast school system, parent and community participation in school system decision-making has become even more difficult and school policies even less transparent.

“Our children are being denied their human rights by a school system focused on raising test scores and policing school hallways instead of supporting the full development of children. We need a new system of public education based on human rights.”

These are the words of a public school parent who spoke on the steps of City Hall in Manhattan on September 28, 2005, at the launch of the Education is a Human Right Campaign. On that day, students, parents, community organizers and educators from across New York City came together to support ICOPE in their work to create a new vision for the public school system.

For positive change to take place, we at ICOPE believe that the system's structures, culture, and relationships must be fundamentally altered and the school system must be redesigned.

In April 2006, the National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University launched Task Force 2009 in collaboration with ICOPE to develop a vision and legislative proposal for how to design a new system. The Task Force, made up of educational leaders, community organizers, parents and youth, is charged with developing recommendations for 2009 when the state law that gave the mayor control of the school system will be up for reconsideration. This legislative timetable provides the public with an opportunity to develop an alternative community-based vision for schools.

A New Vision for New York City Schools

Human rights provide a common framework that allows people from different racial, socio-economic, language and age groups with different personal interests and passions to work together to build a common vision. In particular, for community activists and parents used to fighting against the negative practices and policies in schools, a human rights framework pushes them to think in terms of the positive vision that communities want for their schools.

Human rights are universal, indivisible, and interdependent. In other words, all people have human rights as their inalienable birthright; there is no hierarchy of rights, all rights are equally important; the fulfillment of one particular right depends in whole or in part on the fulfillment of all others.

Some of the work of designing a new system of public education based on human rights has already been done by schools and school districts around North America—even though they might not have framed their innovative work under a human rights umbrella.

Some school districts involve parents, teachers, students, and others in locally controlled schools, rather than relying on the top-down corporate-style bureaucracy we have in New York City. The Edmonton Schools in Alberta, Canada, for example, have developed an inter-nationally recognized system of school-based budgeting that gives maximum control over resources to local schools.

In the Chicago public schools, locally elected school councils hire the principal and decide whether to renew his or her contract. In McComb, Mississippi, parents and community members brought health education and health care services into the schools.

Our vision of a human rights-based school system for New York City includes a governance structure that gives parents, students, and community members decision-making power.

Governance must be transparent and free of corruption. Parents, students, and community members must have the support, training, and information necessary to fulfill their roles.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes that every child has the right to an education “directed to the development of the child's personality, talents, and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.” This concept of education goes far beyond the current focus on high-stakes testing, which narrows and distorts education as teachers are forced to “teach to the test.”

Other school districts have been able to implement alternative assessment techniques. For example, the state of Nebraska was able to convince the federal government to allow them to integrate the No Child Left Behind requirements into their own teacher-based assessment process, which combines a portfolio of classroom assessments, locally developed tests, and a limited number of state and national tests.

Our vision of a human rights-based school system includes art and music, field trips, teaching methods that adapt to the learning styles of different students, curricula that teach social and civic skills, emotional education, critical thinking and ethical reasoning, and an individualized system of assessment.

Getting Organized

Before launching the Education is a Human Right Campaign, ICOPE asked a wide range of education advocacy organizations to contribute “planks” to the campaign's human right “platform.”

Endorsers of the campaign include:

  • Black New Yorkers for Educational Excellence, an organization that works to ensure that school staff, curriculum, and teaching methods respect and promote the diverse histories and cultures of students of color. The Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes that education should develop respect for each child's “own cultural identity, language, and values.”

  • Class Size Matters. Although there is no specific human right to small class sizes, human rights require that there are adequate numbers of teachers and classrooms to meet students' needs.

  • Prison Moratorium Project, which fights to get police officers—whose presence and involvement in discipline create destructive school climates—removed from schools.

  • Center for Immigrant Families, which conducted a two-year investigation of how schools serving mostly middle-class families on Manhattan's Upper West Side had been turning away low-income students of color.

Human rights are a tool for mobilizing and empowering communities to fight for their right to education. A parent in the Bronx who is a part of the Education is a Human Right campaign said, “I realize now that most of the things that are happening in schools that I don't like are violating my children's human rights, and I have a right to do something about it.”

In April 2006, ICOPE recruited more than 60 parents, community activists, educators, and youth to serve on five Independent Borough Education Commissions, one in each of the five boroughs of New York City. These commissions gather input from the community and do outreach to build a grassroots movement.

ICOPE has also launched a youth action research project that will engage youth ages 16 to 21 in gathering information about the lived experiences of New York City public school students.

Looking back to move forward

On December 2, 2006, ICOPE hosted a dialogue that brought members of the campaign together to learn about the history of the 1968 civil rights movement for community control of New York City schools. Participants gathered lessons from the struggle of African- American and Latino communities in the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Oceanhill-Brownsville in Brooklyn, who 40 years earlier, fought for their vision for quality public education.

During the meeting, a high school student noted that his school doesn't teach students about the 1968 struggle. Unfortunately, 40 years after that struggle, parents and students are still fighting to gain accountability from a school system that continues to ignore and under-mine the needs, values, and stories of strength of communities in New York City.

ICOPE's goal for the future is to kick-start a movement for change by creating networks of committed community members. In doing so, ICOPE works within a broader human rights movement that is emerging in the United States to challenge inequalities in every aspect of American life.


Elizabeth Sullivan is the education director of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.

Cecilia Blewer is a parent and a co-founder of the Independent Commission on Public Education (ICOPE), 718/499-3756.

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