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A Small Town Unites to Rebuff Attempts to Erode Democracy

What happens when a small group of bullies take over a town’s public school system and begins to gut it to lower taxes for families that send their children to private schools?

It’s a complicated story made more difficult to unravel by charges of antisemitism which always should be taken seriously.

Rather than write an article about what some democracy-minded residents of East Ramapo, New York did—we will let them tell the story themselves.


The story of STRONG EAST RAMAPO (aka “StrongER”)


What inspired StrongER?

Incredible activists have been working for positive change in East Ramapo for years.  The recent “This American Life” story created an opportunity to mobilize additional interested allies of the district’s students, including alumni who previously did not know how to get involved.  Several former classmates came together to launch this broad-based coalition.

Who is behind StrongER?

These are our stories.
Send yours to strongeastramapo@gmail.com  and join us.

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Andrew K. Mandel – I remember reading my first biography of Dr. King when I was in first grade in the Fleetwood Elementary School Library in 1984, crying when I saw the Jim Crow signs of “no Blacks, Jews and Dogs” and finding hope when I learned about the ingenious boycotters of Montgomery.  I can draw a direct line from the commitment to diversity and justice instilled in me by my teachers in East Ramapo (especially my music teacher, Mrs. Bearman) to my decision to work in education, first as a public school teacher in South Texas and now as a leader at Teach For America, a national organization dedicated to educational equity.  I also gain strength from my Jewish heritage and attend synagogue regularly, where I fervently believe that the Exodus is not complete until we are all free.  A graduate of Harvard College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I am currently a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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Julie Guerrero – After listening to the This American Life episode, I knew I had to do something.  No more excuses. I needed to figure out a way to help. So I e-mailed, posted on Facebook, had dinner with old friends from high school, read anything and everything I could to get up to speed on the situation.  I contacted a local activist and asked him what the top 3 needs are.  I contacted friends who I knew still live in Spring Valley.  I made connections, something I learned simply by growing up in East Ramapo. It’s a skill that I would lean on as an adult.  I value diversity, and I will forever be grateful to Spring Valley for that.  I’m here to give back to my beloved hometown. I’m a connector.  I’m an organizer.  I’m a dreamer.  And I’m not the only one.

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Olivia M. Castor – My first day at Spring Valley High School was exhilarating. I had been begging my parents to allow me to transfer to the “public school down the street” with numerous extra-curriculars, sports teams, and advanced classes, so when I finally walked into the high school on my first day of sophomore year I felt like a kid in a candy store. I spent my first year in Spring Valley trying out as many clubs, sports, and advanced classes as I could, and it was great! However, by the end of my sophomore year in high school, I began to notice a lot of the programming cuts that the older students had been whispering about in the hallways. My involvement with the Spring Valley NAACP Youth Council allowed me to channel my love for intellectual growth and my desire to see that my peers had an equitable access to educational opportunities into pursuing change for the public school students in East Ramapo. My activism work during my time at Spring Valley opened my eyes to education disparities in communities of color, and has fueled my desire to not only continue to pursue justice for the students of East Ramapo, but to study International Development with a focus on Education in other parts of the world. I am currently a student at Harvard College pursuing a Joint Degree in Social Studies and African and African American Studies.

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Ramon Lorenzo D. Labitigan – After attending East Ramapo schools since pre-K, by eighth grade I was preparing to transfer to a private high school in New Jersey. But when my parents and I did our research, we felt that Ramapo High School would support my interests better than any of the private schools we considered, and ultimately we decided to stay in the district. Indeed, the opportunities, educators, and fellow classmates that I found during my 14 years in East Ramapo schools gave me the education my parents dreamed of when we moved to New York from the Philippines in 1992. Because of East Ramapo, I was able to take many AP courses that prepared me for college, compete in two varsity sports, play multiple instruments for various musical ensembles, and become a leader in many other extracurricular pursuits. Since graduating in 2009, I have maintained contact with many teachers and students of East Ramapo in order to continue giving back to one of the places I call home. Over the past several years, it has been disheartening to hear news that so much of what made my East Ramapo experience special has been threatened or eliminated. The students of East Ramapo deserve more, and I stand beside them as a proud alum. I graduated from Yale University in 2013, where I double majored in molecular biophysics & biochemistry and linguistics. I am currently a medical student at Stanford University.

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Roy George – Every child should be able to receive a full educational experience from math and sciences to arts and music including sports and clubs. This is key to a well rounded high school graduate. I was fortunate enough to receive this type of education right here in East Ramapo. I had wonderful teachers, coaches and tutors at Eldorado, Spring Valley Junior and Spring Valley Senior High Schools. I will never forget all the staff members that taught me what I needed for the next phase of my life.  That education allowed me to attend college at SUNY Buffalo, obtain a job as a young adult, and afforded me many connections and camaraderies throughout my primary school career, many of which I still maintain today.  That education allowed me to excel in my profession and gave me the courage to accept job offers on both ends of this great country. It gave me the base skills to become a leader and I will not stand idly by as this same education or experience is taken away from the children of this district. Today, I sit on the Board of Directors of two organizations, have owned two businesses and maintain high level positions in my field of banking.

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Ross Greenberg – When I look back upon my life including the choices I’ve made and the path I’ve traveled, its clear to me that I was motivated by the lessons I learned at Eldorado Elementary School and Spring Valley Junior and Senior High Schools. The lessons I learned were academic, moral and consistently inspirational. Due to this background with East Ramapo schools, I had the confidence to pursue a degree at the Culinary Institute of America and open Woodwork, a restaurant in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. I recall being specifically inspired by a visit from Rosa Parks that was arranged by Principal Hunter and reminded me to stand up for myself and for others. Additionally, Mrs. Bearman always taught the importance of using one’s voice to speak up.  Strong East Ramapo has my full support as efforts are made to make sure more generations of students have the opportunities that made me who I am today.

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Lauren Arnold Volk – As a product of two schoolteachers with strong Jewish values, I was taught to never take my education for granted. I believe wholeheartedly that all children, regardless of economics, should have access to a high quality education.  As a student of Eldorado Elementary, Spring Valley Jr. High and Spring Valley Senior High, I always felt that I received a top-notch education that provided me with choices for academics and a career path. As well, the extra-curricular activities that I participated in (softball, band, tennis, clubs) provided me with a rich educational experience I will forever cherish.  I attended NYU’s Stern School of Business, and my East Ramapo education prepared me for this.   Higher Education led me into the marketing environment, where I have focused on consumer and marketing behavior for the past 13 years.  The situation in East Ramapo is distressing to me because I want East Ramapo students to have the same ability to make active academic and career choices, just like I did.  I am eager to see this trend reversed; this will only occur if active-minded people get involved now.

Reena George DePaolo – Part of me always knew I would work in education. I had amazing teachers in my life who not only taught me the required curriculum but lessons that were not on any state or school exam. My teachers showed me the beauty of math, the possibilities in science, the soul of music, to appreciate the diversity and history around us, and to value everything we have and every opportunity we are given. My teachers made learning fun; they motivated and inspired me; and, they played a huge in role in why I am so passionate about helping students today. I currently work with traditionally underrepresented and economically disadvantaged students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and Psychology, helping them to succeed in college and prepare for their futures. I am the product of Fleetwood, Eldorado, Spring Valley Junior High and Spring Valley High School. I brag about the accomplishments of and opportunities in my schools when I was a student: our Key Club, Marching Band, sports teams, our Thespians and Concert Choir, the honor societies in which I was inducted and the clubs I joined. And of course, the diversity of our students. I made lifelong friends in East Ramapo who are really my family. This district provided me so much more than just the transfer of knowledge in the classroom and it saddens me to see current students not having the same experiences I did. I thank East Ramapo of the past and hope it can be restored to the district it once was.

We Are StrongER Because of Our Teachers

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Marlene McAlevey (29-year veteran, who taught what she calls “delicious kids” in 1st and 2nd grade at Hillcrest, 2nd and 3rd grade at Fleetwood, and 5th and 6th grade at Eldorado): East Ramapo gave my own children an exceptional education. My children went on to go to some of the best colleges in our country. They were schooled not only by their exceptional teachers, but by the ability to interact with other students who came from diverse backgrounds. Just the other day as we watched the Thanksgiving Day parade, I recalled the year the Spring Valley High (East Ramapo) Band marched…They were a prize winning group.  It saddens me greatly that this gem of a school district has been destroyed.

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Pictured to the left (from L to R) are supporters Betty Fishman (35 years at Eldorado, starting in 1970), Lynne Bearman (Eldorado), Audrey Paley (33-year veteran), Gloria Eichenberg (35-year veteran of Hillcrest, Margetts and Eldorado).  Betty Fishman writes, “All of us are very upset by the deterioration of a once productive school system.  A school system that not only produced professionals, but also artists and musicians.  A school system that catered to all and brought each student to the best that they could be.  A school system that recognized all kinds of intelligences and encouraged creative thinking.  We are all saddened by the lack of opportunity presently offered by the once brilliant school district.  The students deserve the opportunities that their predecessors were guaranteed!  We grieve the loss of the “American Dream” here.  I, myself, am a product of that dream!”

We also thank Amy Condit (Eldorado), Beth Duitz (22-year veteran of Eldorado), and Anna Reduce (Eldorado) for their support of StrongER.

We Are StrongER Because of Our Community

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Sasha Bunchuk – I have owned LeCamp and Champion Day Camp on West Clarkstown Road since 1978.  Thousands of families have experienced great summers at my camp.  To see what has happened in this community is so heartbreaking it’s beyond words.  I’d be happy to assist in any way to bring some sanity to this situation.  Sasha is now working to organize other East Ramapo day camp owners to support StrongER’s efforts as well.

The story of STRONG EAST RAMAPO