One of the ‘Feltonville Six’ speaks up about right to opt out

     About 20 percent of students at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences opted out of standardized testing. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    About 20 percent of students at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences opted out of standardized testing. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Parents at the Feltonville School of Arts & Sciences in Philadelphia have taken a stand against high-stakes standardized testing. Using their legal right to opt out, one in five parents at Feltonville are now refusing the spring administration of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSAs) for their children.

    The parents and students at Feltonville are part of a growing national movement. Many in the “opt-out” movement are dissatisfied with the use of curriculum as preparation for testing, with school funding decisions based on student performance, and with the for-profit politics of assessment.

    The Feltonville group is joining the voices of parents, educators and activists around the country who are outraged by the disproportionate affect that high-stakes testing so often has on low-income students, students of color, students with special needs and English language learners.

    According to sixth grade Feltonville teacher Kelley Collings, over 100 parents at the school have decided to opt their children out of the testing this year. To put that number in context, only 16 students in the entire city of Philadelphia opted out of the PSSA in 2012

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    Although deciding to opt-out is an individual family decision, the action at Feltonville is far from accidental. The actions and parent response are part of a coordinated local effort to stand up against high-stakes standardized testing.

    Collings is a founding member of the year-old Caucus of Working Educators (WE). As part of caucus work, Collings and others have been organizing with groups around the city and across the country. Activists who helped build opt-out movements in Chicago, New York and Seattle served as mentors for the Feltonville group. Armed with this expertise, teachers at Feltonville began to inform parents in their school about the right to opt their children out of testing.

    Disciplinary action?

    The same day the story about the Feltonville opt-out campaign broke in the media, the six teachers who had been informing parents of their opt-out rights received disciplinary letters from the school district. This Thursday, those teachers are required to appear before a disciplinary conference on the matter.

    Teachers remain adamant that informing parents of their right to opt out should not be an actionable offense. As one of the “Feltonville Six,” Collings will attend the disciplinary conference with representation from the PFT and armed with pro bono advice from lawyers affiliated with the Caucus of Working Educators.

    Far from being dismayed, Collings feels energized by the support and the momentum. She believes that “shining the light on injustice protects us.” Yet teachers at Feltonville worry that their principal, Michael Reid, could be sanctioned as a result of the opt-out actions.

    “He turned our school around, he trusts our teachers and he has an incredible degree of integrity. I don’t want to see any punitive measures against him,” Collings said.

    Growing support

    In addition to the growing number of parents deciding to opt their children out of the PSSAs, organizational and political support is growing as well. The Caucus of Working Educators, the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, the Teacher Action Group of Philadelphia, Parents United for Public Education and Seventh District Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez issued statements of support for teachers and parents in Feltonville.

    There is also an online petition of support for Philadelphia Parents’ Right to Opt-out. 

    Many of supporters of the cause view this as a fundamental right-to-know issue. Alison Hawver McDowell, public school advocate and parent at Masterman, supports the stance parents and teachers at Feltonville have taken.

    “Parents deserve to know their rights, and the teachers and administrators they trust should be able to inform them of those rights without disciplinary action.”

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