Locals speak out at teachers union rally

A group of local teachers, school administrators, parents and students traveled by bus to Albany this past weekend for an education reform rally sponsored by the state’s largest teachers union.

Wearing T-shirts that read, “Learning is more than just a test score,” and carrying signs that said, “Stop ‘cookie cutter’ education,” the roughly a dozen locals stood with thousands of like-minded people at the New York State United Teachers “One Voice United” rally, held Saturday on the Empire State Plaza.

“It was a real high-energy atmosphere,” said Don Carlisto, a Saranac Lake Middle School teacher and co-president of the Saranac Lake Teachers Association. “We had costumed characters, interesting signs and some real high-powered speakers. I think people, at least on the bus that I was on on the ride home, they were looking at the rally as a launching pad rather than the culmination of something.”

NYSUT hired about 225 buses to get participants to the rally. Three came from the North Country, from Watertown, Potsdam and Plattsburgh, where the local attendees met up.

In addition to teachers from Saranac Lake and Lake Placid, the group also included newly elected Saranac Lake school board member Shir Filler, new Lake Placid school Superintendent Roger Catania, local parents and two students: Carlisto’s son Jackson and Catania’s son Louis.

Roger Catania said he went as a dad. He said his son, a Saranac Lake Middle School seventh-grader, has been very tuned in to the education reform debate going on statewide.

“He came home and said, ‘Dad, there’s a rally, and I really want to go,'” Catania said. “We talked about it and decided it would be a good experience for him. Of course, I’m immersed in education issues as well, so I was excited to go, too.”

Not surprisingly, a big focus of the rally was on the state Education Department’s increased use of standardized tests. Teachers say the amount of testing has become burdensome, interferes with classroom learning and creates undue stress for students. They also say they haven’t been given the necessary resources to prepare students for tests that are now aligned with new national Common Core standards.

Many rally attendees called for a moratorium on using the new tests to evaluate teachers and determine student placements until the standards have been fully implemented.

“We’ll give the tests and we’ll implement the Common Core, but until we can figure out exactly what the ramifications of this experiment they want to conduct on public education is, let’s just hold off on some of the consequences,” Carlisto said.

Petrova Elementary School kindergarten teacher Sara Shatraw, who also attended the rally, said she’s concerned about the impact of testing on the youngest students.

“Although what’s really come under scrutiny is (grades) three through eight testing, with the rapid implementation of the Common Core standards and what kids are expected to learn for the grade they’re headed into, I already feel the pressures of that in kindergarten,” she said.

Catania said he shares many of the concerns that were raised at the rally about testing mandates.

“I’m not opposed to all standardized tests in the world, but I think it’s becoming excessive,” he said. “The expectations are powerful enough that they’re causing schools and districts to rethink subjects not covered in the tests, things like music and art, which I believe are critical and vital areas for developing kids creativity and problem solving.”

Testing wasn’t the only focus of the rally, Carlisto said. He said there was a big push against the state selling student testing data to for-profit test-development companies, and there was a lot of support for providing more funding to higher education, particularly community colleges.

Both Carlisto and Shatraw said the rally solidified some of the concerns they’ve heard locally.

“I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about losing the joy in teaching and the kids not really having a joy for learning, and it’s often being tied to all the testing,” Shatraw said. “It just felt good to be in a spot where people were coming together, and there were some really good leaders in our state saying enough is enough.”

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.