July/August 2013 Issue
June 21, 2013

One Voice United: Students take action against budget cuts, high-stakes testing decisions

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
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Caption: East Ramapo senior Olivia Castor led a student walkout to protest budget cuts. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

Student Vanessa Vacanti of Baldwinsville was so angry after taking her state math test, she flipped the exam over and wrote a two-page letter to the State Education Department on the back of it. "Dear New York state," she began, the tests "aren't helping students in any way, and they are taking time away from what we need to learn for the future. We just get behind," she wrote.

When some of her teachers read it, they encouraged her to come to the "One Voice United" rally in Albany.

"They said I should stand up for what I believe," Vacanti said. She rode the bus with teachers and parents from her district, along with students from across the state, and stood at the rally impressed by the dedication shown by the more than 15,000 people who turned out. She learned from one speaker that some testing companies are looking into selling private information about students.

"It's a really sneaky (and dishonest) way to make money," she said. Vacanti has started a blog about state testing - saynotostatetests.wordpress.com - and made up brochures to hand out to students so they can pass them on to their parents to let them know what is currently happening in the dizzying world of public education.

East Ramapo senior Olivia Castor was at the rally, too. She was unexpectedly called up to the huge stage to receive hearty applause from the densely packed crowd for leading a student walkout at her school.

Teachers, she promised the people before her, "WE HAVE YOUR VOICE!" The Harvard-bound Castor lives in a district where school aid does not go far enough to accommodate the needs of all students. Many Latino and Caribbean immigrants and firstgeneration high school students live in the district. Yes, first generation high school.

Voters in May rejected a $210 million budget that cut more than 60 staff members, art and music programs, after-school clubs and many sports.

Courses are packed because of prior teacher layoffs, Castor said. Students "are bored, and they're not getting their energy out." She gave them a way to vent by organizing a walkout. More than 500 students chanted "no more cuts." Voters approved a more painful $209.5 million budget — $452,000 less than the previous budget proposal — during the June 18 re-vote.

Cohoes High School Marching Band honor guard Nick Brazzell, a sixth-grader from the Spindle City, in Albany County, said he came to the rally "so we can have budgets passed." Dressed in a sharp blue-and-gold band uniform, Brazzell said he always wanted to be in the marching band and enjoys earning extra credits toward his future college career. Music and band teaching positions have been cut in the Cohoes district.

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Nikhil Goyal (pictured above), author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School, said he loved the energy of the June 8 rally. Goyal, a January graduate of Syosett High School, told the crowd that as "a member of the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top generation," he and his cohorts have been tested to an extent that is unprecedented. "My entire school career has been dominated by endless testing and a culture of 'drill, kill, bubble fill.'"

Goyal will lead a student movement next school year against the overemphasis of high-stakes testing.

"It is time for the stakeholders to rise up and revolt," he said. Students are "taking back our schools. We're taking back public education ... from the hands of corporations, billionaires, Wall Street and testing companies.