By Tolu Olorunda
“The last of our four turnaround models is simply to close underperforming schools and re-enroll the students in better schools. This may seem like surrender, but in some cases it’s the only responsible thing to do. It instantly improves the learning conditions for those kids and brings a failing school to a swift and thorough conclusion.” – Arne Duncan, “Turning Around the Bottom Five Percent,” June 22, 2009
“We’re here because someone has to have the clarity and the conviction to confront institutional racism head-on. . . . To deny us the right to improve our schools as community institutions is a violation of our human rights. To destabilize schools in our community is a violation of our human rights. To have communities with no neighborhood schools is a violation of our human rights. . . . We are America’s mirror. Do you have the courage to accept what you see?” – Jitu Brown, US Department of Education hearing, January 29, 2013
From 2003-2012, in New York City, 117 schools were closed. Twenty-five more closings are scheduled for 2013. Sixty-three percent of the students affected are black.
Since 2001, in Chicago, 72 schools have been closed or phased out. Ninety percent of the students affected are black.
In 2008, 23 schools were closed in Washington, DC. Ninety-nine percent of the students affected were black or brown.
Since 2005, in Detroit, 130 schools have been closed. Ninety-three percent of the students affected are black.
“We’re fighting for ourselves and our civil rights,” longtime Detroit advocate Helen Moore announced to a group on the bus upon reaching the nation’s capital Tuesday morning, January 29. Turning to the students, she continued, “You will be down in history just like Martin Luther King. And I want you to be able to say that I did what I was supposed to do.”
On Sunday night, January 27, about 50 Detroit and Highland Park residents, including students, parents, teachers, activists and DPS board members, traveled by bus to Washington, DC, as part of a larger gathering featuring 22 black school districts nationwide convening on Capitol Hill to protest mass school closings, loss of local governance and relentless reform measures which, they argued, ring a return to the days of Jim Crow, with blatantly separate and unequal schools. They are part of a national Journey for Justice movement.
(Several of the districts had already filed Title VI complaints with the Office of Civil Rights to place a moratorium on school closures and to implement – instead of the current top-down reform schemes – a sustainable success model that involves communities throughout the process and values the dignity of all students affected.)
The nationwide coalition of grassroots organizations included Keep the Vote/No Takeover (Detroit), Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (Chicago), Youth United for Change (Philadelphia), Project South (Atlanta), Parent Power (Hartford), Friends and Family of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (New Orleans), and the Baltimore Algebra Project.
When schools are closed, they said unanimously, neighborhoods fall apart – gangs flourish; students drop out; homes rapidly devalue; and the quality of life worsens. They also railed against the various reform schemes sweeping through the nation, particularly in urban districts, where cyber schools, charter schools and state-created “failing schools” have cropped up within the last decade – against, in most cases, the protests and projected outrage of the affected communities.
In his June 2009 address at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan listed four qualifying tenets schools must meet under the turnaround model, pioneered in Chicago through the Renaissance 2010 initiative, which closed and restaffed over 100 schools in the city:
- They must establish a rigorous performance evaluation system along with more support, training and mentoring.
- They must change and strengthen the curriculum and instructional program.
- They must increase learning time for kids during afternoons, weekends and in the summer, and provide more time for teachers to collaborate, plan and strategize.
- And principals and leadership teams must be given more flexibility around budgeting, staffing and calendar.
Contrasted against this narrative are the four pillars of the Sustainable Success Model, which the Journey activists urged the Department of Education to adopt:
- Undertake a comprehensive needs assessment – done in partnership with parents, educators, students and community members – so that local solutions are tailored to local problems.
- Implement research-based instructional and educational reforms.
- Address essential social, emotional and physical needs of students.
- Recognize parent, student and community leadership as key to sustainable student success.
Journey for Justice Rallies
The first Journey for Justice rally had been held September 20, 2011, and the same issues were at stake. This year’s, “Journey for Justice 2: Our Children are Not Collateral Damage,” featured a hearing at the Department of Education, with several members of the cities represented.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan opened the hearing saying, “We may not agree on everything, but I think everyone comes here with the same heart. And our goal is to help children in disadvantaged communities get a world-class education. That’s what so many of us have devoted our lives trying to do.”
And yet the testimonies all recapitulated common themes – of neighborhood public schools shut down arbitrarily and unjustifiably, “turned around,” “phased out” and “sabotaged.” Students from several cities spoke of attending classes with no teachers, technology or textbooks – of schools with crumbling or dilapidated infrastructure.
Terrell Major, a graduating senior from Walter L. Cohen High School, argued the closing down of public schools in New Orleans post-Katrina, blamed on low performance, was simply part of a larger strategy to “get rid of our culture in our city, get rid of our heritage and strip us of our morality.” When his school was taken over by New Orleans College Prep, only 11th and 12th graders were allowed to remain, creating a two-tier structure where the “original” students were segregated in the cafeteria and denied some of the resources incoming charter-enrolled students received.
Major was followed by Karran Harper-Royal, a New Orleans parent and cofounder of the national group Parents Across America, who spoke at length of the Recovery School District (RSD), imposed by the state to effectively replace the New Orleans Public School system after the storm, which displaced significant portions of the city’s low-income population.
The turnaround rationale of Secretary Duncan might have been uncovered when, speaking to ABC News five years later, he announced: “The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster. And it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that we have to do better.”
In 2005, Harper-Royal said, a change in law to redefine “failing schools” was used to take over 107 of the city’s then-128 public schools, which were removed from the oversight of the duly-elected school board and placed into the Recovery School District, an imposed order controlled by the Louisiana Department of Education. The majority of schools were chartered, closed or simply never reopened, affecting 90 percent of black students and only 1 percent of white students in the city. She argued parents don’t have “choice” when, of the 42,000 students in New Orleans today, 80 percent attend charter schools – some of which run a lottery enrollment process. Parents, as a result, are forced to apply to multiple charter schools to secure seats for their children in the classroom.
The promised fruits, however, have failed to appear: 100 percent of the 15 direct-run RSD schools are currently rated “D” or “F”, as are 79 percent of the RSD charter schools.
“African-American students are more likely than their white counterparts to experience schools that are at risk of being closed down, phased-out, turned around or co-located,” Harper-Royal said. “To guarantee me a seat in a failing school system is not ‘choice.’ It’s racist is what it is.”
Helen Moore, during her testimony, stood on similar ground. “Racism is well and alive in this country,” she said, tracing the struggles back to the earlier days of the civil rights movement. “We are the descendants of slaves. We are now reversing back to slavery. All the things that are happening to us are by design, by design, by design. They don’t want our children to have an education, but we do, and we’ll fight to the death to get our education.”
Detroit, especially, has been hit hard, with more than 100 schools closed in the last decade. Forty-one percent of students currently attend charter schools, 10-12 percent attend state-run schools and the rest traditional public schools.
Moore touched on the fracturing of Detroit public schools (DPS), marshaled through the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a state-created failing school district in Detroit formed from the lowest 5 percent of “underperforming” schools. Michigan governor Rick Snyder placed 15 schools into the district in June 2011 and appointed a former General Motors sales executive, Roy Roberts, as head; its chancellor is John Covington, former superintendent of Kansas City Public Schools, currently an unaccredited district.
Daesha Ashmore, a sophomore at Detroit’s Mumford High School, part of the EAA, spoke against the longer calendar of the district, which equals “less time to do community work and find summer jobs.” She also spoke about the punitive culture in some of the schools: abusive security guards and a tardy policy that treats students “badly by locking us outside the school because we were late for our first-period class.”
Ashmore was followed by Cheyenne Walker, a senior at CODY High School (DPS), who, while attending an EAA school (Central High) last fall, was penalized for organizing students to demand a quality education. She spoke of starting school in September with only 3 teachers for her 7 classes, some of which held 67-73 students. For four hours, students took attendance, roamed the hallways, listened to music, played cards. “I feel like those four hours we could have been reading, writing, doing math, learning computers,” she said. “I hear people say all the time that this generation is lost, that 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.”
The testimonies lasted a couple of hours and, after a few brief words from Department of Education officials (who promised to keep investigating complaints and reaching out to local communities), was closed with words by Chicago-based Jitu Brown, education organizer with Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago. Brown, looking into the future, urged all the gathered communities to keep fighting and growing. “Our children deserve to stand on our shoulders, not to be buried in policy that considers them less because of the color of their skin,” he said. “This is just the beginning, 22 cities and counting. Next time we come back, we gon’ have three-fourths of the United States with us.”
After the hearing, most shuffled outside for a march to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, where a short vigil was held.
Several hundred marched for more than an hour, carrying flags, signs and banners and chanting through the windy evening, flanked by DC police:
“The Students united will never be defeated!”
“We’re fired up – won’t take it no more!”
“Whose Schools? Our Schools!”
“The Youth united will never be defeated!”
“Whose kids? Our kids!”
They carried signs that read:
CLOSING SCHOOLS IS JUST STUPID
CHARTER SCHOOL SYSTEM IN NEW ORLEANS IS NOT A MODEL FOR EDUCATIONAL REFORM
OUR CHILDREN VS. RSD = PRISON/DISASTER
NEW ORLEANS STUDENTS STILL IN TRAILERS 7 YEARS AFTER KATRINA
FUND OUR SCHOOLS
Most who marched – students, parents, activists, elders and teachers had on red T-shirts, the backs of which read:
NO SCHOOLS + NO JOBS = DEATH
This seemed the unifying theme of the journey.
Tolu Olorunda is a writer and cultural critic currently living in Detroit, Michigan. He is also author of The Substance of Truth (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2011), a collection of essays on education, culture, and society. His writing has appeared widely online and in print, including Alternet, Black Commentator, ColorLines, The Nation, Truthout, PowerPlay: A Journal of Educational Justice, and theReview of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.