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Voices From DC: Speaking Up for Schools and a Quality Education in Communities of Color

Teaching class(Image: Teaching Class via Shutterstock)Parents, students, teachers and board members from school districts around the US converged on the nation’s capital to protest school closures and education reforms that adversely impact minority communities. Here are some of their stories.

On Tuesday, January 29, representatives from more than a dozen minority school districts from across the nation gathered at the Department of Education (DOE) in Washington, DC to protest school closures they say disproportionately impact low-income students in black and brown communities.

Those who attended the DOE hearing on educational justice and civil rights included students, parents, school board members and activists who spoke with one voice to deliver the message that their stories are the same, that Jim Crow is alive and that they’re “fired up – [and] won’t take it no more.”

The protestors represented cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, New York, New Jersey, Oakland, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington which in recent years have been hard hit with turnarounds, phase-outs and school closures that siphon valuable resources from public schools into private and public-private (charter) ventures, entrusting the education of low-income students to corporations and foundations.

The hearing lasted about three hours, and was followed by a rally and march to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, where they held a short vigil.

Below are videos of individual testimony from some of the participants:

Cheyenne Walker on Student Organizing and Seeking Justice

Cheyenne Walker, a student formerly at Central High School in Detroit (EAA), ended her testimony this way: “I hear people saying all the time that this generation is lost and this generation is failing. But this generation is not lost; this generation has been neglected. And if we’re failing, it’s because you guys have failed us.”

She told personal stories of going to school with only three teachers for seven of her classes; she spoke of classrooms brimming with 67 to 73 pupils, where students took attendance, listened to music, played cards.

While at Central, Walker had co-organized a petition drive and a stay-at-home action with students to address the grossly separate and unequal conditions of the school. She also went to parent meetings to mobilize for more resources and teachers. The response from her principal was a hostile confrontation.

“I’m a senior and I feel this is my most important year, and I should be preparing for college; but instead I spend days stressing over my learning environment. Why do we have to deal with this? Why do I have to deal with this?”

Terrell Major On Recovery School District, School Closings and Charter Schools in New Orleans

Terrell Major is a graduating senior at Walter L. Cohen High School in New Orleans, Louisiana. He spoke about the Recovery School District (RSD), imposed on New Orleans post-Katrina, effectively wiping out the neighborhood public schools that, however imperfect, thrived before the storm. As a consequence, of the 42,000 students in New Orleans today, 80 percent attend charter schools.

“In our city, low-income families that send their children to school get treated like second-rate citizens,” Major said. “What we came here for is to file our civil rights complaints with the US Department of Education because we feel like we’ve been discriminated against in the school system with the Recovery School District coming in and taking over our schools, phasing them out, closing them out because they say we have low performance.”

The bitter irony: 100 percent of the 15 direct-run RSD schools are currently rated “D” or “F,” as are 79 percent of the RSD charter schools.

“I wish to get my point across to the US Department of Education … that this is discrimination and it is going against our civil rights,” Major continued. “I just hope that our schools could get back to the way they used to be, being public schools, where you actually have a choice and the community has an input in what goes on in these schools.”

Saeda Washington, Youth Leader, defines “Sabotage”

Saeda Washington, a staff member and leader at Youth United for Change, Philadelphia, defines “sabotage” and its correlation with school reform. “To me, sabotage is using our youth as collateral damage,” she said. “Sabotage is when you close 37 schools that are in black and brown communities, and none of them in the suburbs.”

Antonio Harris, From Detroit, Speaks on Fighting for the Future

This young student activist briefly makes the connections between school closings and the sort of future awaiting children denied a quality education. He also touches on the sense of abandonment many young people feel, having so much to fight for, yet so few fighting with them.

Violet Sims, Parent From Connecticut, on School Closings and Reform

Violet Sims is a parent advocate from Connecticut, representing the organization CT Parent Power.

In Connecticut, Sims said, public schools are facing pressures of turnaround and state takeover, which forces most schools into discriminatory practices like teaching to the test and tracking, abandoning many students and failing in providing “real education or creating a well-rounded student.”

Public schools are drained of funds, students and resources, which are then funneled into charter and magnet systems, even while the schools are consistently shown to perform no better – if not worse, as in some cases – than public schools in the same districts.

Sims also talked about a lack of concern on a local level, which spurred her trip to DC to join a bigger movement sharing the same struggle.

“Reform should be an involved process where the community is involved, the parents are involved, the teachers – no one listens to the teachers that are in the trenches, dealing with students every day and knowing what they need and what support would help students succeed,” she said. “Effective reform needs to stop being top-down, basically, and include the people at the bottom who know their struggle and know what could be best for them.”

Jitu Brown on Helen Moore: “This is Our Sojourner Truth.”

Jitu Brown, Chicago rap pioneer and education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), recognizes the value of Helen Moore to the struggle.

“This is our Sojourner Truth,” Brown said. “This is our Harriet Tubman. This is our Mary McLeod Bethune. And so we don’t have to open a book because every day, she writes a new chapter.”

Moore has been an education advocate for more than 40 years. During her testimony at the Department of Education, Moore spoke against the dismantling of community control in Detroit and many other minority school districts across the country: “We send our children to the schools. They are our schools; they are our children; it is our money. And that is my attitude over all these years.”

As a social worker and graduate of the law school at the University of Detroit, she has been involved in longtime organizing on behalf of Detroit’s children, working with Rosa Parks for many years and filing a lawsuit against the state takeover of Detroit public schools in the late 1990s. She is also the mother of three boys and one girl.

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