For City Councilman Mark Treyger, education is in his blood. The son of a now-retired D75 teacher and a paraprofessional, Treyger was a history and economics teacher at New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst for eight years until December 2013, a month after he was first elected to the city council. He was also the school’s UFT delegate and was part of its School Leadership Team. These positions, the Councilman believes, have helped him represent Council District 47 (CD47), which encompasses Coney Island, Bensonhurst, Sea Gate, and Gravesend.
“I wore a number of hats, and I’m proud of that,” Treyger says. “It gave me a very unique lens to view our neighborhood and our city.”
That lens has allowed him to be acutely aware of the issues many schools in his district have faced over the years - lack of funding for programs and upgrades through the years, as well as unprecedented times.
When Treyger was first elected in 2013, it was during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which tore apart his district on October 29th, 2012. Several Coney Island schools, including PS 188, PS 288, IS 303, and the Mark Twain School 239 for the Gifted & Talented, were flooded, and their boilers were damaged. Although temporary boilers were provided, they made those school buildings either too hot or too cold to be in. This gave way to replacing the boilers, which was among Treyger’s most noted tasks in his first term, though it would take until 2017 to get all those temporary boilers removed.
“My students’ experience really shaped my views,” he says about transitioning from teaching to politics. “I wanted to elevate their urgency because there were politicians aloof to their reality. It’s all about the ability to give voice to the community and to amplify the noise.”
During that first term, Treyger focused on education, regularly visiting schools in his district to understand the needs and wants from an educational perspective. Among the issues he was active on were overcrowding and the co-locating of more schools. He was behind a 2017 bill that required the DOE to collect data on school bullying and introduced a bill calling for more transparency over fundraising by parent-teacher organizations.
Treyger was re-elected to represent the district in 2017 and appointed the Chair of the City Council’s Committee of Education in January 2018, expanding his reach on education issues across the city.
In 2018, Treyger visited the Pan American International High School in Corona, Queens. Back then, the school was part of the Renewal Schools Program, which meant there was a focus on turning around this low-performing school. Funding from the City Council gave the school the chance to hire a bilingual social worker, which helped both the students and their families, who were feeling the stress from the threat of ICE, Treyger says, improving attendance as the students now had someone to turn to in times of crisis.
“It is an indictment that we are failing the emotional needs of our students,” Treyger explains, pointing out that there are 1,045 students for each school counselor across the city.
“Our schools need to be community schools, and they need to meet the needs of the whole child. They’re not just a place for passing state exams and graduating on time. Our schools are so much more than that. Schools are lifelines, and students are not robots; they’re human beings.”
Fighting to get more funding for his district’s schools has been another mission of this Councilman. According to Juan Soto, a spokesman for the City Council, Treyger obtained $798,000 in technology grants for PS 288 over the course of several years, and more than $4.5 million to fund upgrades at PS 188, including an art therapist, music room, media room, and a visual arts room. Late last year, he secured $4.6 million for a new greenhouse at the Rachel Carson High School for Coastal Studies, along with an urban farm and several upgrades for that school. And this month, he announced another $1.35 million for a high-end art studio at the same school. Abraham Lincoln High School got funding of $2.1 million for a computer lab, renovating its softball field, creating a mock courtroom, and technology upgrades. All four schools are in Coney Island.
This summer, the Councilman secured funds from the City Council’s FY2022 capital grants for IS 303, also in Coney Island, and PS/IS 95 in Gravesend. The former got $325,000 from Treyger to create a hydroponics lab and a horticulture room, while the other school got $1.5 million for a rooftop garden. He also obtained $1.5 million for a culinary arts program for P721K, a D75 school in Gravesend.
But one school in particular that has benefitted from Treyger’s support is John Dewey High School in Gravesend.
Back in 2013, the school was on the brink of closing and had only 600 students attending. Treyger says he pleaded then-Chancellor Carmen Farina not to close the school and instead give it time to turn around. By securing millions in funds from the city budget over the years, Treyger helped the high school develop a state-of-the-art kitchen for its culinary program, a courtroom classroom is in the works, and soon construction will begin to create a new auditorium that will have the same standards as Broadway, including acoustics and lighting.
“Teachers were leaving, now they’re looking to transfer there,” the Councilman says. “There are now 2,400 students, and it’s growing. It just lacked resources. When you make the right investments, that child is more likely to come to school. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned here.”
Despite what he has accomplished during his eight years in office, Councilman Treyger is not entirely satisfied.
“I want to bring all of my schools to the 21st century,” he says. “There’s no question that schools need updates, wiring, accessibility.”
As he closes the final months of his tenure, Councilman Treyger is making sure the public schools in CD47, and the rest of the city, are ready to face the impact of the COVID19 pandemic. He helped set aside $600 million for the Fair Student Funding in the Executive Budget, which was released late April. Full funding, Treyger hopes, will help principals hire more social workers, art instructors, and teachers.
“The crossroads that we make now will be either temporary or generational,” he explains.
Anna Lembersky, the president of Community Education Council (CEC) 21, which shares its territory with CD47, thinks Treyger will be irreplaceable.
“He’s been fantastic. He’s been wonderful in giving schools money and advocating for school’s infrastructure,” says Lembersky. “He was a teacher in a previous life, so he knew exactly what the issues were and gave each and every penny he had. He was involved in a lot of projects involving our Coney Island schools, a territory that people would not touch. But he treated it equally. It was not like a popularity contest with him. ‘If your school needs it, I’ll give it to you.’ He’s done a lot of good things for the district. I can’t see who could possibly fill his shoes. It’s going to be hard.”
Treyger hopes the next Chairperson of the Education Committee will continue with the work he has done.
And what will Mark Treyger do next, come January 2022?
“I’m 39 years old, so I still plan to be passionately involved,” Treyger says. “Where I go next remains to be seen.”
What would he like to say to the public school students in CD47?
“They continue to amaze me,” Treyger says before taking a pause. “I would also say, ‘I’m sorry for the many years you weren’t given the opportunity to succeed.’ They deserved so much more.”