BY MICHAEL RICONDA
Local parents and community activists organized through the nonprofit organization Advocating For Change met at the First Baptist Church of Spring Valley at 7 p.m. on the evening of January 7 to address problems faced by students in the East Ramapo School District.
The meeting, which was chaired by L’tanya Watkins, Pedro Santana, and Reverend Weldon McWilliams IV, was largely a brainstorming effort to identify problems, solutions, and tangible goals. Many of these short-term goals included ways parents could both get involved and dramatize such efforts to improve the school district, which has faced serious problems over the past few years related to severe budget cuts to critical programs.
Participants pointed to a broad array of problems including lack of extracurricular activities, cuts to programs such as Pre-K, Kindergarten, technology, and music programs, high class sizes, and insufficient support for special needs children, many of which have become not only issues in East Ramapo schools, but broader national issues as well.
A recurring complaint among attendees was the East Ramapo School Board, which many agreed was not reflective of the student population and indifferent to the interests of non-Jewish students and parents. The East Ramapo School Board has been publicly criticized for alleged abuses of its own power, culminating in a lawsuit filed by almost 200 parents in August against the school board for misuse of public funds to support private religious institutions. The school board is dominated by Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, another source of tension for the diverse East Ramapo community.
The goals defined by attendees included the removal of the board of education and general efforts in line with a proposed “PIES” formula, which broadly outlines students’ physical, intellectual, emotional, and social development as the most critical areas of focus.
Specific goals which fit this broad plan included the common theme of unseating the school board, training teachers to create a culturally-diverse and empathic atmosphere for students of different ethnic and socio-economic groups, improving school operations and performance to be equal or greater than that of other districts, and connecting to students on their level, not a standardized one which misses out on important differences between student interests, backgrounds, and learning styles.
One well-received suggestion on how to improve education in East Ramapo was the expansion of trade school and GED programs to accommodate children whose energies might not be suited for traditional education, but could be effectively focused into other areas.
“Not all children are the same and not all children learn the same, so I think we absolutely need to tailor education to the young person we need to educate,” Watkins said. “Some young people learn by doing, so a hands-on curriculum would be effective for them.”