Kaliris Salas-Ramirez: Caught in the Crossfire of a Battle for Democracy

Central Park East 1, a small, public elementary school in East Harlem, has been under siege for more than a year, a battleground for democracy.  Founded by renowned educator, writer, and activist Deborah Meier in 1974, this outpost for progressive, developmentally attuned practice is one of a dwindling number of options in New York City for leveling the playing field for young children.

DeBlasio-CPE2016

A neuroscientist who was born and grew up in Puerto Rico, Kaliris Salas-Ramirez is an assistant professor at the medical school of the City University of New York, and co-president of the Parents Association at Central Park East 1.  Until she was banned from her son’s school—a recent action that inspired a petition to Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools chancellor Carmen Fariña—Salas-Ramirez had never been brought up on disciplinary charges.

 

By Kaliris Salas-Ramirez   

Since January of 2016, I have been part of a campaign to protect Central Park East 1 as Deborah Meier intended it to be: a small, progressive, child-centered elementary school committed to democratic governance.

Our school has been systematically destroyed in the hands of principal Monika Garg. She has harassed our teachers (old and new), she has mistreated and abused our children, using them as pawns in her attack on educators. In her relatively brief tenure, Garg has managed to break down a progressive school that has existed for more than 40 years—one of the most integrated and coveted public schools in New York City.

Last year, more than 70 percent of our school’s families signed a petition requesting Garg’s removal.  I have attended and spoken at meetings of the Panel for Educational Policy, on which New York City’s chancellor Carmen Fariña sits, and the Community Education Council of our district.

We have protested, rallied, written articles, met with representatives from the New York City Department of Education, and visited numerous elected officials, including Gale A. Brewer and Melinda Katz, borough presidents, respectively, of Manhattan and Queens; City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and council members Robert J. Rodriguez and Mark D. Levine; U.S. Representative Adriano Espaillat; and New York State senators Jose M. Serrano and Bill Perkins.

In recent weeks, the struggle has intensified. On April 6th, 2017, a group of seven parents occupied the school after presenting her with a vote of no-confidence signed by more than 60 percent of the current families.  When we returned after spring break, we received a letter from Alexandra Estrella, the district superintendent, which confirmed the city’s support of Garg.  No plan, no description, no intervention. Our action had yielded nothing.

But the principal has upped her game. Rather than working with the department of education, parents, and teachers to address pressing concerns about the school, Garg has directly targeted two parents.

I am one of them.

Yesterday, I received a letter of “limited access” to our school. What did I do?  I had entered the building with a graduate student in journalism from Columbia University.  She admired a quilt made by families and walked the hall with me as I took my son’s glasses to his empty classroom. Central Park East 1 is a world-renowned school. We have visitors all the time. I have often brought in parents, elected officials, and students, and I’ve never been told that visitors needed to be announced, or that I was required to have the principal’s permission.

Under the terms of the letter, I cannot take my son to his classroom, or pick him up from school—unless I have been announced or have made an appointment. The security staff must escort him to his classroom.  Nor can I be at the school to assist parents with their concerns. I don’t know if I can attend leadership meetings, or meet with the school psychologist or counselor about my son’s Individualized Education Plan.

Seba is my pride and joy. He is the center of my world. I do the things I do to make the world a better place for him. He struggles with emotional processing, and has issues around abandonment. At the beginning of the year, he was running away from school, a safety concern for sure, but he wanted to be at home.  Since the IEP was implemented, he has made great progress—until two months ago, when his teacher was abruptly removed. The loss of Marilyn Martinez deeply affected him. He worried that I would leave him, too.

Seba is five years old.  These actions can have a significant impact on his academic journey, for the rest of his life.

Garg did not talk to me about this decision, she did not talk to the school psychologist, she did not talk to the school counselor, and she did not tell his teachers.   But she claims that I should have limited access because I am the one that poses safety concerns to the community. Estrella also told me that she did not know about the latest developments when I confronted her yesterday morning.

Central Park East 1’s principal has brought investigators and strangers to our school, and interviewed children without parental consent.  Where is her limited access?

Photo caption (left to right): Bonnie Massey, Bill de Blasio, Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, Sid Massey

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