Thursday, February 12, 2015
Nearly 200 people gathered for a set of workshops Wednesday night aimed at overcoming stereotypes and promoting understanding between the diverse and often divided groups that make up the East Ramapo school district.
Organized and hosted by the private Green Meadow Waldorf School, the two-hour event was the first of its kind for the East Ramapo district, which includes 9,000 mostly black and Latino public school students and some 24,000 private school students, mostly from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
"We may not understand each other's cultures, identities … before we start talking about it," said co-facilitator, Randolph Carter, of the Eastern Educational Resource Collaborative, a national organization that provides diversity consulting for schools. "This is an opportunity to connect, learn and grow and we believe that we have the best interests of everyone at heart."
Many participants and organizers acknowledged that there was little representation from the Orthodox, black and Latino communities; many said they hoped the event could be a trial run of sorts that would lead to more opportunities for interaction between the factions.
Emily Alvarado, a junior at Ramapo High School, was among about 20 East Ramapo students at the event. She expressed disappointment that yeshiva students who were invited did not attend, despite Green Meadow organizers' outreach efforts in the ultra-Orthodox community.
"It would have been nice to talk to them," Alvarado said. "I would have told them all the conditions (in our schools), the classes that are being cut, how our ceilings last year were caving in … I would have told them all of that."
Still, that Green Meadow students and staff held the forum at all "meant a lot" to Ramapo students, considering how divided the district is, she said.
In small discussion groups, students proposed ideas to "break out of their bubbles"; Green Meadow kids were invited to Ramapo High School's drama club crew nights as they prepare for the spring musical. Another student suggested similar forums should be held at East Ramapo public schools and yeshivas.
Green Meadow lies within East Ramapo's boundaries and students and staff there have looked on with concern for years as their neighbors in the public schools endured the loss of sports, music, art and other programs.
Chestnut Ridge resident Rose Fitzgerald has two children at Green Meadow and is a guardian to a child at Spring Valley High School.
"I've seen how this issue has really affected the whole community and it feels quite sad on so many levels, and so I'm curious to hear other perspectives," Fitzgerald said, as she headed into the adult discussion room.
Fitzgerald said she's met teachers and administrators who are struggling because of a lack of funding for the public schools. "It's really heartbreaking for them to know that they can't do the work that they really want to do," she said.
Much of the fighting between the public school community and the largely white, Orthodox and Hasidic school board, whose children attend private religious schools, has stemmed from claims supported by a state fiscal monitor that the board favors private schools when allocating shared resources, leading to glaring inequities for public school students.
But on Wednesday, the bitter accusations often shouted at school board meetings were put on hold as participants followed the ground rules for a calm and civil discussion.
Izzy Landau, a Monsey resident who left the ultra-Orthodox community and now sends his kids to East Ramapo public schools, walked out of the adults' forum feeling optimistic.
"It went better than expected, actually," he said. "It kind of breaks the barriers and lets one group say, 'it's not so bad on the other side.'"
East Ramapo Schools Superintendent Joel Klein said the forum is a starting point for the divided district to work toward consensus for the benefit of students.
"It was a wonderful opportunity. I think it's a great beginning. We'll see what happens," he said.
Klein also acknowledged the lack of diversity among participants and said he'd like to see greater representation from the community at future events.
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