One recent morning, Anthony Williams was walking past the string of bodegas and candy stores that line 174th Street on the way to PS 70, the Tremont elementary school his two sons attend. It was close to 9 a.m., just before the morning bell, when Williams, a 37-year-old part-time college student, heard the familiar sound of young children and the tweetering of video games coming from a nearby convenience store.
Then he heard something he had never heard before: the owner telling the kids to move along, it was time to go to school. “They used to let the kids hang around all morning,” he recalls.
Two years ago, before Williams and other neighborhood parents began an aggressive and occasionally controversial parents patrol, the owner would have been happy to let the kids go on playing their games. After all, no one came around looking for them. Not teachers, not school safety officers, certainly not their parents. But the patrol, a team of mothers, fathers, grandparents and neighborhood retirees who guard areas in and out of the school with walkie-talkies, has begun to change all that.
They keep their eyes on the kids, the neighborhood troublemakers who prey on young students and, most important, the under-performing school. Making sure kids get to school intact and on time was their initial motive, but parent power has turned out to be the ultimate goal.
“If we don’t get involved, who will?” asks Sybil Mulligan, president of PS 70’s parent association and a patrol member. “[Board of Education officials] very rarely even visit the schools…. They come with good intentions, but they get caught up in politics and stop paying attention.”
Community School District 9, whose school board has been suspended numerous times, has a history of political flim-flam and educational root-rot. Barely one-third of PS 70’s kids read at grade level; just over half meet that proficiency in math. The building itself is hopelessly overcrowded; 1,700 restless kids have been crammed into classrooms and modular add-ons in space built to hold 1,400.
The surrounding streets are even less hospitable. All but 3 percent of the students come from households that are poor enough to qualify them for free lunch. And the local precinct is in the top ten when it comes to juvenile arrests.
It was this general atmosphere of child-on-child violence that prompted the parents to organize the patrol in the first place. For years, students in IS 147, a junior high separated from PS 70 only by Claremont Park, have bullied, berated and even mugged the younger students. One fifth grader told City Limits she still remembers a mass raw-egg barrage she endured from the older kids one Halloween. Even with the patrol members around, incidents are not uncommon: Mulligan tells of a junior high student who approached a PS 70 kid and snatched off his backpack.
“We chased him but he was so quick we couldn’t catch him,” Mulligan recalls with an incredulous laugh. She also says she’s known kids who were beaten up for less than five dollars. “People will kill for less than that, so parents are very concerned.”
Despite such constant threats, the school’s 21 exits are protected by only two full-time and one part-time guards. They are overwhelmed. Before and after school, the students are joined by five busloads of kids from other schools who come for day care, creating a child-swarm that even the most conscientious teachers find difficult to monitor. “I’ve seen children come in one door and go out another to the park,” says Sonia Martinez, who has a son in the fourth grade. “Patrol members say it’s also not uncommon to find unscreened adults–mostly parents–roaming around the school without the requisite building passes.
Because the Board of Education allocates guards on the basis of a school’s number of violent incidents, elementary schools are often shorted when it comes to guards. “The Board of Ed is not as inclined to supply security for elementary schools as they are for junior high and high schools,” admits principal Sylvia Simon.
A small group of PS 70 parents–Williams, Mulligan and Aida Morales–had talked about setting up a patrol for years, but it was a $4,000 grant from Promesa, a local nonprofit multi-service agency, that helped them get started with uniforms and walkie-talkies. They also hired Bea Lurie, a former city housing official who advises local groups on public safety issues.
In a school system where bake sales are the most common form of parent involvement, such parent patrols are still a relative rarity. In Tremont, the other reason that makes parents come together–and keeps them from breaking apart–is that the patrol is almost a full-time job.
Each morning the patrol members see if they have enough troops to keep an eye on all the school’s exits, hallways and bathrooms over the course of the day. Often, however, there are only enough volunteers available to oversee the rush hours: before school, lunch time and after the final bell.
The patrol is anchored by a few parent. They are the first ones on site in their signature blue-and-yellow T-shirts, hats and jackets. Although 25 to 30 parents began the current school year in the patrol only 15 make the rounds now. Parents drop out for any number of reasons: fatigue, other commitments (many parents work multiple jobs), the season (on winter mornings it’s particularly hard to get parents). What’s more, parents simply aren’t used to other parents taking part in their children’s school lives.
“Groups like that get too into people’s business, I’m too busy for that,” says Jason Rivera, whose daughter is a fifth grader at PS 70. “I’ve had [patrol members] call me at my job because my daughter was misbehaving in the halls. Call me at home about that.”
Personality politics and petty clashes have also wounded the organization’s credibility with some parents. Last year, parents complained that one patrol member, Carolyn Green, had been rude to some parents and kids. Green says she was the one verbally abused, but the patrol decided to kick her out, prompting at least one other member to resign in protest. Green, who is still angry over the affair, thinks parents shouldn’t have the right to pass judgment on other parents. “They’re bogus,” Green says of the patrol. “They keep other people from becoming involved.”
Mulligan, for one, is undaunted by such criticism. When the patrol is particularly short-handed, she takes a more direct approach. She has even been known to drag parents out of school assemblies to get them to join the patrol.
And for all the travail, there have been undeniable victories. Mulligan and the principal say that violent incidents around the school have dropped. And patrol members have become more assertive in calling for changes when they see things they don’t like.
Take one particularly lousy school guard. “When it was really cold, she’d be in the store instead of watching the children,” Morales says. “And she always had an attitude with the parents.” Last September, they succeeded in having the woman removed from her post-although she hasn’t yet been replaced.
It was a small victory, but an important one for parents who are trying to make their imprint on a system that has long ignored them. As for attacking parent apathy and hostility, Mulligan offers a simple pitch to mother and fathers who refuse to join her patrol:
“Your child will respect you and all adults more. They behave better because they know you care. You will see the improvement.”
Mary Blatch is a City Limits intern.