An Interview with Cynthia Nixon—Actor, Advocate
You know her as Miranda from HBO's "Sex and the City." What you may not have known is that Cynthia Nixon is fighting for your kids' rights to a quality education.
Ed. Update: Where did you grow up and attend school?
Cynthia Nixon (CN): I grew up in New York City. I went to Riverside Church for pre-school. For K-2nd, I went to P.S. 75. For half of second to 6th, I went to P.S. 158 on the east side, then on to Hunter College HS for 7th-12th, followed by Barnard College. I loved Hunter HS. So many of my friends are from those days. I experienced a really intensive learning environment and met a lot of kindred spirits.
A lot of teachers made a tremendous impact on me. I was an English major in college and we had a tremendous English department at Hunter. Particularly Parker Barada, I was in a lot of his classes, including his Shakespeare class where I actually got a chance to student-teach.
I was a child actor from the time I was 12. What helped me in my childhood was a real stress on education. I started acting when I was 12 and got a film called Little Darlings where I had to go to Georgia for 2 1/2 months. After I came back we all looked at each other and said, "Well, we can't do that again." Hunter's a very tough school. We made a decision after that that I would never take another job out of town unless it was under two weeks. The film Amadeus was shot in Prague and I was constantly flying out every day or two.
Ed. Update: Did you ever consider getting instruction on the set?
CN: That's not something that I wanted for myself. I knew a good thing when I saw it and Hunter meant so much to me—to get in was such a miracle I wasn't just going to throw it away. Acting took a back seat to school.
Ed. Update: You obviously have positive feelings towards public education. Where did that stem from?
CN: I first became involved with Alliance for Quality Education when my daughter went to pre-K at P.S. 75. I visited about 7 or 8 schools in this neighborhood, and one of the reasons we moved here was because it had really great schools. I'm very pleased. However, on her first day of Kindergarten at a different school, there were many budget cuts and it was totally different than what I was led to believe it would be. She was in a class that was housed in trailers in the back, which I knew and had toured, but instead of two adults in the classroom, there was only one. That's a problem with young children as well as a problem when you're not even in the school building itself. What happens if a child or the teacher is ill? So the very first day of school, people protesting greeted me with flyers and I joined them immediately. The Alliance for Quality Education was organizing it and I thought these are exactly the people that I want to work with. These are the people who are, I think, our best hope. I think public schools need a lot of improving and funding. People who have a lot of money opt out of public schools and with the middle-class movement away from the public schools, funding has dropped significantly. I think that needs to be addressed. That's why I'm working with the Alliance for Quality Education—that's the main thing they're fighting for.
Ed. Update: Did you ever consider being a teacher?
CN: When I was younger, a teacher was certainly one of the things I could envision myself doing. But after having children of my own and going into my daughter's various classrooms and observing teachers, that is a job I could never do. That's got to be the hardest job in the world. As a parent, you need incredible patience, but when you're dealing with a classroom of 20 to 25 kids—it seems impossible. I think teachers are amazing.
Ed. Update: Would you want a career in theatre for your daughter, Samantha?
CN: Absolutely. I've had a wonderful life in the theatre. I think that being an actor is a really great profession. I think the really hard thing is,obviously, there aren't enough jobs. I would wish a life for her as an actor provided she was a working actor.
Ed. Update: Have you done Shakespeare?
CN: When I was a senior at Barnard, I did Juliet at the Public Theatre—the only one I've ever done. It was intimidating but great. When I was 14, I did my first play, "The Philadelphia Story" at Lincoln Center, and I was told to begin to work on the character of Juliet then. So when I was 21, I knew the part very well and I think that's why I got cast.
Ed. Update: What results, if any, have you seen so far through working with the Alliance ?
CN: We were pretty successful the first year I worked with them—2001--2002, regarding the budget cutbacks. We are mostly centered around the CFE lawsuit. I think we really kept that alive. I was up in Albany a couple weeks ago. I've just been really hitting the pavement; from Yonkers and Westchester to Long Island, just to really make sure that the legislature really grabs this opportunity.
We have until July 30th for the legislature and the governor to figure out a way to implement it and it's really an historic opportunity. If we grab this chance now we have an opportunity to improve school districts all across the state. I think that's the best chance of passing it in the legislature. New York City is in real need of help but as badly off as a lot of our schools are—in Buffalo they're doing a lot worse; there are places around the state that are hurting more than New York City and it is going to benefit everyone. New York City is going to win no matter what but I think we have a chance to benefit the entire state.
Ed. Update: When you say, "hitting the pavement," what exactly does that entail?
CN: They have a whole schedule planned for me. These are big protests partly designed to make the legislature sit up and notice but also to educate parents and students that they have the opportunity to let your legislature know that this matters to you. Of all the things that our government does for us, education is so immediate.
Ed. Update: Would you consider money to play the most important role in a quality education?
CN: No, I wouldn't at all but I also think that, as they say, "More money isn't always the answer, but lack of money is always a problem." I think that the courts have shown, pretty effectively, how deficient the budget is, and I think we've got to approach it from all different angles. We've also got to invest it and give teachers the tools, give kids the tools. When I did "Principal for a Day" a year ago, it was remarkable to see what a difference an extra $2,000 per student makes. It was like a nirvana. A school that was failing so miserably, that had low reading and math scores, and very little English-speaking student bodyÉwas turned around really quickly by just being able to hire more people and more support staff. They were able to pinpoint kids who were having trouble and have a real guidance department. This was an elementary school in Harlem.
We hear all the time about the waste—and by all means, we need to clean that up. But if you include poverty in the equation and you really look at how the money is spent, if it is spent well, it can make all the difference.
Ed. Update: It's impossible to ignore the topic of 3rd Grade Promotion. What are your thoughts on it, especially having a daughter who is about to enter the 3rd grade?
CN: My daughter is young enough that I haven't entered the whole testing nightmare, but I certainly don't think that promotion, especially at such a young age, should just be based on one test. I think you can speak clearly to teachers and say, "We don't want to promote kids who aren't ready" but to just have it based on one test—what if you have a bad day? What if you're not good at taking tests? I think a teacher knows if a child is equipped to enter the next grade. If we really can say to our teachers, "We don't want to do social promotion, we don't want to send a kid ahead before he or she is ready, I think that's a better way of determining who is ready to go on, then an arbitrary test. Look at the whole record. I think you need to rely on the judgment of the teachers who can judge their students better than anybody.
Ed. Update: What would you say are the current positives and negatives of the public school system?
CN: Positives that I've seen are the teachers who are really remarkable, amazingly dedicated, and well trained. They have a lot of years under their belt. My daughter has known four really spectacular teachers in the four years she's been in public school—I couldn't have asked for better. I also think the range of kids is really fun and exciting and just great.
Most of the negatives have to do with cutbacks. There are not enough lunchroom personnel, so it can be dangerous at lunch. There's not enough supervision in the yard, and that directly goes back to the year, 2001, prior to September 11th. When major budget cuts happened, the first people to go were paraprofessionals. The loss of those people in the lunchroom, in the yard, and especially in the classroom in the younger grades—was truly devastating. It's a safety and learning issue. We all know what can happen in a lunchroom or a recess period where there's not enough supervision. When things are that chaotic, kids get shaken up and upset and they're not any good for the afternoon. They can't concentrate; also, if lunchtime is a scary time, you're not that good in the morning either. You're thinking, "Oh God, I have to go to that yard where maybe those big kids are going to bother me and there's not enough teachers to protect me."
I would also cite that our school has really had to cobble together the after-school program. And that is really a tremendous loss. Right now it is unreliable, the funding is not there. It should be a given; people really need that after school program, and it should be both—it should offer help with homework and it should be recreation. And that's the other problem: my daughter's school is over-crowded. The kids should have more gym time, more art and music. When it's bad weather, they get put in the auditorium to watch a movie.
Ed. Update: What are your thoughts on music and art being cut out of the curriculum because of decreasing budgets?
CN: Out of about 700 or 800 students, there is one art teacher in my daughter's school. That's insane. Samantha has art once a week, but we had to fight for it; she might not have gotten it at all. There are kids that don't get art. She gets music once a week.
I think that when the funding is down, everybody looks at the first thing they can cut, and they see everything as "extras". These are not extras. Paraprofessionals in the lunchrooms and the classrooms are not extras. Art is not an extra. We can't just have an attitude as parents and educators of "Eat your spinach." You can't just say, "Eat your spinach" for 7 hours a day. Just do math and that's it. People are different, and children are people. Some people love books, some people love numbers, some people love ball, some people love paint. We have to find a way to make school an exciting, welcoming place. For every kid who doesn't know how to read yet, maybe they're excited to go to school that day because they have gym. These things are not extras, these thing are all important. We can't just educate the brain in one narrow way.
The adults are over-whelmed by all the information we have to shove into these little minds. We have to give the numbers a rest and we have to exercise some other part of the child. Samantha's getting too much homework. Her teacher is good because she is doing her best to make the kids know what they're "supposed to" by the end of the year. And if that means no Halloween party because their math isn't done, then that's what it means.
Ed. Update: You recently received the Distinguished Alumni Award at Barnard College. Could you briefly comment on that experience?
CN: It was wonderful. It was so wild that the main reason that my organization came into being was to implement CFE, and being honored as the woman who is now partially responsible for making CFE a real possibility, it seemed almost like fate.
Ed. Update: What would the best scenario for the future of public schools?
CN: Politicians are always telling you, "I'm for educationÉthat's my number one issue." I think they need to understand that you can't be for education if you don't invest the money in it. We've got to invest the money in the schools, and make sure it goes to the right places. We also have to make sure to have a great pool of people to choose from for teachers; we have to pay and train them appropriately. I want to see people who have other choices come back to the public schools because of it.#