Mott Haven Talks Schools: Little Love for Mayor or Critics

Originally published in City Limits on June 4, 2013. Part of City & State’s Five Borough Ballot series.

Patrons of Camaguey Restaurant hold nuanced views on mayoral control, charter schools and teacher evaluations—and feel the state of the schools is more important than who’s mayor.

By Matthew J. Perlman and Nicholas Wells

The business at Camaguey Restaurant on 138th Street in Mott Haven changes with the weather this time of year. The warmth and sun of Memorial Day means more people are barbecuing down the street in St. Mary’s Park than are coming to sit at the counter.

Around the corner on Brook Avenue, a regular Camaguey customer and the owner of a convenience store, Beverly Small, 59, sits behind her register noting the same lull. As the conversation turns to local politics, she strikes a note that is often repeated in Mott Haven—that the issues people face every day are more important than the elected officials representing them.

And for many, that means education.

“I know a lot of the people around here—I don’t think are very well educated,” Small says, explaining that a lot of her customers can’t read the lotto tickets they’ve just bought. Small has to tell them if their ticket is for a morning or evening drawing.

“Education is such a big deal.”

Small also talks about problems with kids coming in and trying to steal, and about fights on the street outside the week before that prompted her to call the police. “These kids need to be in some programs,” she says. “Most of the parents have no idea what the kids are up to.”

“Kids have to be kids, but this is a little too much.”

Not fans of mayoral control

Later in the week at Camaguey, the rain is keeping most people in a hurry to get off the streets. Joseph Greenberg, 40, the son of one of the restaurant’s owners, is restocking sodas, doing dishes and cleaning up. As a couple of young kids climb over the chairs and duck between tables, Greenberg talks about the state of education in the Bronx.

“You got to realize that the parents of most children here in the borough—the parents—are less educated. They’re just trying to pay the bills. To get by.”

“I don’t think there’s a fix for that. It’s too broad of a problem,” Greenberg says.

But he does see mayoral control of the school system, which Bloomberg instituted in 2002 by dissolving the Board of Education, as a big mistake.

“I think there should be a separate entity,” he says. “The mayor knows how to make money, but what does he know about how the people are living? What they’re dealing with?” This notion of distance between the public and the politicians who govern them cuts deep for Greenberg.

“They’re just not in tune,” he says.

Seeking quality in charters, parochial schools

The next day, as Gale Coles waits for her order of mondango, a savory soup made with tripe, she talks about charter schools in the Bronx. “My children are in charter schools. I don’t trust the public schools,” she says. Her eldest son graduated from the public school system, but that experience led her to send two younger kids to KIPP charter schools, where they are currently enrolled.

“I felt the quality of the public schools was not up to par,” she says. “I see the difference with charter schools.”

“At the end of the day, it’s just a better-quality education. They have them thinking about college from the first grade,” Coles says.

On the same afternoon a couple blocks away at Brook Park, volunteer Dawn Cherry, 54, works at weeding a patch of garden, getting it ready for planting this summer. She puts down her hoe to talk.

“Thanks for the break,” she says, wiping away some sweat.

Cherry has raised 10 kids in the Bronx, and all but two are now in college or off working in other parts of the country. She used to send her kids to the public schools and was heavily involved with the PTA. But after PS 220 on East 140th Street was shutdown in 2008 she became disenchanted with the city’s school system. Now, she sends one of her kids to St. Jerome, a Catholic school, and the other to a special education program for children on the autistic spectrum down in Florida.

Issues in the school system, she says, come from the mayor’s take over. “The mayoral control surely should end and it should go back to the Board of Ed,” she says.

“Teachers should be more involved in the running of schools,” she adds, and parents also need to play a role. “Unless you work together as a team, it’s not going to work.”

Cherry is ambivalent about the issue of teacher evaluations because they can’t gauge all the factors that contribute to how a student performs.

“There’s some value in teacher testing, because if you’re not good you can see it right away. But who’s to say who’s a good teacher?”

“You could be taught by Einstein,” she says, but if you have trouble at home you’re not going to do well.

Back at Camaguey, Alvin Sullivan, 48, talks over a sweetened espresso about some of those troubles. He’s been in out of the penal system for the last 30 years. Growing up in the South Bronx, he says, there was “no place for us kids to go—they did away with the community centers.”

He worries that his son, who is 23, will take after him. Sullivan has served time for a variety of drug-related charges, including a three-year stint in the mid-1980s for attempted murder.

He says he thinks that people in the South Bronx are more worried about fixing their day-to-day problems than about politics.

“The issues at hand are more important than these bigger issues.”