Every school day in the Lincoln Park community on the North Side of Chicago greets students with well-appointed institutions that include some of the best facilities that American public schools have to offer.
Click over to the Yelp ratings for the elementary schools and you’ll read parent reviews that talk about their elementary school’s band programs, afterschool programs, and recent innovative practices being implemented. The high school website features the school’s richly stocked library and well-outfitted sports teams (the swim team has its own Olympic-sized pool, and there’s a golf team, no less). There’s a performing arts faculty, a world language department offering French, German, Spanish, and Arabic; extensive performing arts opportunities; and an International Baccalaureate program. A raft of “specialists” are on hand to support students needing extra help.
This is not at all like the lived experience of students attending public schools on Chicago’s South Side. The schools serving the overwhelmingly black and brown students in those neighborhoods aren’t quite so sparkling. Click over to the websites for those schools (if the sites are still functioning), and you’ll see into a different world: no pool, no library, much shorter lists of academic offerings, and relatively few mentions of the arts.
In fact, according to a recent report at The Huffington Post, the U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into alleged discrimination at two of those public schools “where course offerings have been slashed to the point where physical education is only available as an online class,” and students are no longer being offered any honors and other advanced classes they need to attend college.
What’s worse, many neighborhoods in South Side Chicago don’t even have public schools anymore, making their communities “school deserts,” according to a recent report from MSNBC. After years of chronic neglect, their schools were deemed “failures,” and they were closed.
Did the schools fail, or did the system? Do these schools need “reform,” or does the whole system?
You’d think this blatant discrimination would get noticed and addressed in cities like Chicago. But people at the brunt of these disparities have yet to be heard. Today, they are speaking out again.
A National Week Of Action Culminates Today
Many of those who are raising their voices in protest in Chicago are showing up today at a press conference in front of the Mayor’s office at City Hall in which parents, teachers, students, and community members, predominantly from the South Side, will demand a meeting with the mayor and will be prepared to engage in civil disobedience.
The Chicago activists are not alone. Joining activists in Chicago today, there are protest actions in at least 18 other cities. Like today’s event in Chicago, the happenings in other cities are taking place because students, parents, teachers, and citizens from underserved communities in many of our cities are fed up with the conditions of their schools – especially when they can see that schools in the better-off parts of town get what they need.
Organizations representing these aggrieved citizens have joined their voices in today’s events as part of a national Week of Action for the Public Schools All Our Children Deserve.
The combined groups refer to themselves as the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a national alliance of parent, youth and community organizations and labor groups fighting for educational justice and equity in access to school resources and opportunities.
The actions and appeals of today’s events vary, but there’s a unifying theme throughout. The events coincide with recognition of November 20 being the Universal Children’s Day approved by the United Nation’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959.
In many of today’s actions, the Alliance reports, activists will walk their children into schools and hold demonstrations at prominent public buildings. They’ll join with civil rights leaders, elected officials and faith leaders to promote policies that improve schools instead of closing them. They’ll call for their schools to be resourced well enough to include the full range of student needs, including adequate teaching staff for a well-rounded curriculum, school nurses and librarians, and counselors and social workers.
This demand for more well-resourced schools that attend to the full range of student needs is being loosely defined as “community schools.”
Walking In For Education Equality
Many of the actions involve walking into schools – as opposed to walking out – as a symbolic gesture of support for public education and an opportunity for concerned citizens and the media to see the conditions and challenges these schools face.
The “walk-in” concept originated in North Carolina and St. Paul, Minnesota, where teachers and students, unable or unwilling to walk out of schools, held walk-ins to voice their concerns, educate their communities, and galvanize support for the movement to reclaim our public schools.
In Austin, public school activists are focusing on Travis High School, a struggling school in an underserved community that has been labeled “failed.” They are inviting media inside the school to see the conditions and view firsthand the challenges the educators and students face in their school. And they are calling for the Austin district to implement the community schools model for school like Travis.
In Boston, public school advocates are walking in early to Dearborn Middle School to support the school, address critical infrastructure issues, advocate for a turnaround approach for the school based on a community schools mode, and protest the school being turned over to a charter operator.
In Detroit, Michigan, people are meeting at the home of one child in the Brightmoor neighborhood and then accompanying their children on their route to school, where they will meet in a press conference to call attention to inequitable transportation for students and demand implementation of sustainable community schools.
In other cities – Buffalo, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere – public school advocates are packing school board meetings where they will air their grievances over inadequate resources and call for community schools in their neighborhoods.
Advocates in Philadelphia, New York City, and elsewhere are holding educational presentations with panel discussions and other informative activities. New York City recently gave the concept of community schools a big boost when newly-elected mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to address the city’s most troubled schools with more money and staffing, extended day services, and arrangements for social services to be delivered to students and families on site.
Local Actions, Nationwide Problem
The Week of Action is national because the problem is national in scope.
Many of the participants in today’s events, recently, combined their voices in a project under the banner of a Journey for Justice alliance.
Their report “Death by a Thousand Cuts: Racism, School Closures, and Public School Sabotage,” published earlier this year, concluded, “The public education systems in our communities are dying. More accurately, they are being killed by an alliance of misguided, paternalistic ‘reformers,’ education profiteers, and those who seek to dismantle the institution of public education.”
The report documents that staggering budget austerity being inflicted on school systems in urban communities around the country. While “predominantly Black and Latino communities are experiencing an epidemic of public school closures,” the report contends, “there has been a massive shift in resources from public entities to private organizations, especially within low-income communities of color.”
The authors note that “a small number of community-based charter schools offering high-quality, innovative services that cannot be provided by our local public schools” has morphed into a policy for charter schools to “replace our public schools.”
Their research finds that the disruption of this massive reshaping of urban schools undermines education quality, limits access (and choice) to good schools, wastes resources and diminishes teacher effectiveness, among other results.
Today’s nationwide walk-ins should be a call to all Americans to demand our leaders abandon current public education policies and begin implementing what would truly represent a more positive direction forward.