Anna Allanbrook is principal of the Brooklyn New School in Brooklyn, New York. She explains here how her elementary school became “the Opt Out School.” Very few children in New York City opt out. Some are afraid they won’t get into a good middle school or a good high schools if they don’t have scores. Some are afraid the Immigration Police will come for them. Some are intimidated by administrators who want to play it safe. Read what happened at BNS.

Dear Families:

Tomorrow on April 4, 2017, fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr delivered his famous speech, Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, at Riverside Church and forty nine years after he was shot and killed, we will join with communities across the country, by reciting a few excerpts from those words. This reading is an initiative organized by the The National Council of Elders. Just as Martin Luther King saw a need to condemn silence in 1967, so too does the National Council of Elders see that need today. They have asked schools, churches, civil rights groups, labor organizations, museums, community organizations, and others to join in the building of a movement to break silence, promote dialogue and engage in nonviolent direct action.

In that speech, Martin Luther King said, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

As the daughter of someone born in Vienna, Austria in 1924, I can’t help but remember his story when grappling with recent times. When we think of that big fifth grade curriculum question: What Are You Willing to Stand Up For?, I am reminded of Martin Niemöller’s famous quote:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Educators in the public schools are told not to talk about anything political. This puts us in somewhat of a bind as in the last twenty years, politicians have made school performance a political issue. But there is hope and that hope is reflected in the story of the Opt Out Movement.

At BNS the idea of not taking a state test started with one child and one mom, a mom who said, “No, my child would not be taking the citywide tests.” Within just a few years, BNS became known as the “Opt Out” school. Lots of folks ask how this happened and the answer is very simple. The staff in our school came together around our thinking about the tests. We did this because of what we saw happen when kids took these new tests. We did this by meeting and sharing ideas, first amongst ourselves and then with others. Simultaneously, parents were mobilizing and talking to parents in and outside of the school community. Teachers and parents held meetings to talk about assessment in general, and to talk about the Pearson tests, the specific tests that led to such a major revolt. Teachers described what they saw when kids were testing: children banging their heads, children throwing up, children crying.

Opting Out gave Brooklyn New School the freedom to not teach to the test. In fact our third to fifth grade teachers met again and decided as an entire school not to do any test prep. This became BNS policy. That in a nutshell was the result of one family initially saying no to the test.

This year, the opt out movement may not seem that important. Somehow what has happened nationally is more frightening and certainly more destructive than six days of standardized testing.

There is a sense of urgency today in the United States of America.

We must frame our actions in our commitment to our children, knowing that a big part of our work is the development of the citizens of tomorrow, people who are thoughtful, who read, who think, and who have the skill set to distinguish between facts and alternative facts.
The reality is that many of our New York City public schools are already doing that, offering rich curriculum and programming, which invites learning and encourages inquiry and reflection. As a part of our work, just as social media has made protest visible, we need to make public education visible and we need to work with our colleagues to embrace the possible.

All too often, folks come into our school and marvel at our projects, our trips, the art, the music, the science, saying, “I didn’t know this was happening in public schools.” It is happening in public schools and it could happen even more. The potential is unlimited. Schools that have the freedom to determine what it is they are teaching and how they are teaching, are working in remarkable ways.

If we reframe the conversation to be about kids, if we remove the stigma of low test scores and focus not on bad schools and good schools, but rather on giving our children what they need, we have the power to effect change.

We have no idea how the new administration is going to affect us, although we know that the decisions of prior Secretaries of Education have had tremendous impact. And we know that decisions made at the national level can hurt us locally unless we stay focused on our vision.

At BNS, we took away the impact of standardized tests by reminding parents of their rights. In the next days, weeks, months, we need to be attentive and vigilant, never tiring, being active citizens, and always staying true to the children.

It is not the nineteen thirties, but it is worth remembering the years of my dad’s childhood when it was decided that he and other Jewish children would no longer be allowed to go to school with the Gentiles. That was not normal, and resistance did happen. As policies that are not normal are implemented today, we need to stand together as educators to do what is right for our kids.

All for now,


Quote of the Week:

Anonymous, as told by the ELA testing proctor: “I think two answers are right. Where should I explain (in writing) my thinking?”