On the eve of her 92nd birthday, Lottie Raukx wasn’t going to let the aches of arthritis or numbness of neuropathy slow down her fight for Harlem’s public schools.
Armed with a petition to demand that the education department staff her neighborhood’s school with librarians — as it’s required to — she collected pages of signatures from churchgoers and neighbors.
More than 18 months after the effort began, the city and community are at loggerheads over crucial data that has been requested to help local education advocates make their case. But Raukx and the group she belongs to — the Harlem Council of Elders — have not given up.
“You want to see the children get what they deserve and what they need,” Raukx said. “If you can do anything and be helpful in any way, you need to do so — no matter what the age.”
That has been the mission of the Harlem Council of Elders, a group of 20-or-so seniors who have dedicated their golden years to Harlem schools. They have held the education department to task for dragging their feet on public records requests and drummed up attention for the library issue with stories in the press, all while striving to serve as an example to students in Harlem schools.
“It’s a situation where the community needs to step forward and take responsibility for supporting education,” said Galen Kirkland, who founded the Council. “It’s just a fallacy that people can just leave it up to the Department of Education.”
Kirkland launched the Council more than two decades ago — well before he could join the AARP himself. His years of activism had afforded him a vast network of senior citizens who had similarly dedicated themselves to social causes.
“Older folks have an insight and an awareness about challenges and how to overcome them in this society that young folks just don’t understand,” he said. We can “guide young people about how you maneuver and succeed in a society that is often very hostile and not helpful.”
The Council’s goal is nothing short of “confronting and overcoming racism and classism,” Kirkland said. The elders do that by offering students in Harlem the benefit of their long experience, putting positive role models in classrooms and holding the country’s largest school system to account.
In addition to the longstanding campaign for librarians, the Council also organizes an annual event for seniors to read to children in Harlem schools, as well as monthly visits to schools by black professionals.
“We’re interested in our young people coming up and learning things the right way,” said James Allen, 76, who joined the Council after being recruited by a friend at church. “We try to let them know we came through the same way they’re coming up, and it wasn’t easy for us.”
Over the years, the Council has counted many well-known black activists among its members, Kirkland said. They have included former New York Supreme Court Judge Bruce Wright, who famously set low or no bail for black defendants; Alice Kornegay, who created a nonprofit to help secure financing for low-income housing; and Preston Wilcox, who led efforts to decentralize control of New York City schools. Even David N. Dinkins, the first and only black mayor of New York City, has been involved, according to Kirkland.
The organization runs on a small budget; members’ dues and an annual luncheon help support the cause. Meetings are held in free community spaces. Kirkland said its members are motivated by the inequities they see in community schools.
“We have a system today where there’s so much default going on,” he said. “We’ve done what we can to support educators and students, to fill the deficit that exists in the resourcing of community schools.”
The librarian issue is a case in point. With 87 percent of Harlem schools without librarians — compared with the overall city average of 50 percent, according to the latest available figures, from 2013 — the elders saw a cause that they could fight for.
Almost 10,000 students, the majority of whom are black and Hispanic, are in Harlem schools that don’t have librarians, according to the council. That is despite a state law that calls for middle and high schools to be staffed with librarians part-time in schools with fewer than 700 students, and full-time employees in larger schools.
For the elders, librarians are a crucial missing link when it comes to building the reading and writing skills of Harlem’s students. In the neighborhood’s District 5, for example, only a quarter of students passed state English exams last year — compared to almost 41 percent of students across the city.
Librarians could “help them develop their online and print research skills, love of reading, and readiness for college, careers, and civic life,” the group says.
“It’s an important issue to the Harlem community in particular because the children are missing so much,” Raukx said.
The elders’ Change.org petition, and their outspokenness, has helped keep the matter alive. They have remained on the case as the District 5 Community Education Council submitted requests to the state and city for more detailed records on librarian assignments. The official responses to those requests have only clouded the issue more, with conflicting numbers and details provided.
The information provided by the city education department in August was “pitiful,” said District 5 education council President Sanayi Beckles-Canton.
“They list only two schools in the entire district with librarians,” she wrote in a text message. “If this was the case, why did it take them over a year to get the information to us?”
Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, said there have been “challenges” when it comes to hiring librarians citywide. In fact, the state education department in 2014 ordered the city to start complying with the law after the United Federation of Teachers appealed to the commissioner over the issue. Mantell said the city has recruited 45 teachers in the last few years to pursue certification to become librarians.
“We will continue to take steps to encourage certification and hiring of school library media specialists in Harlem and across the City,” he wrote in an email.
Despite those assurances, the Harlem Council of Elders has been frustrated with the slow-moving response of the department when it comes to an issue that is “so basic,” Kirkland said.
That’s what motivates him to keep pushing. Some years ago, his activism brought him back to his old elementary school, P.S. 197. Talking with the principal, he learned the school needed money for books. It was a stark contrast to the “fabulous” education he remembers receiving all those years ago.
“It’s a painful thing to see,” Kirkland said. But, he added, “We feel really positive about the opportunities we’ve had to help fill those gaps.”
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct photo attribution.