We ask for nothing that is not right, and herein lies the great power of our demand. -Paul Robeson
I stand in the hallway of the school building, my back leaning against a wall and legs crossed. The halls are brightly lit and eerily quiet. Across from me is a typical school fire alarm, with a message hastily taped up next to it: IF YOU PULL THIS ALARM YOU WILL BE ARRESTED.
Another Day at Robeson
"Kids walk out of this school every day," said Lizzy, the pause in her voice betraying sadness. "Just not together like that."
Lizzy is a senior at Robeson, which she and her friend Sue affectionately call "Robe" (rhymes with Moby). She is an level-headed yet embattled leader in her school, both as a non-voting student representative on the Mayor's Panel for Educational Policy, and as one of the organizers of the student walk-out on May 1st.
Lizzy is surprised that the principal suspended each and every student who walked out that morning. She feels particularly betrayed, perhaps, because all along she had helped liaise with the man. He was, in fact, new to the building and to the fighting spirit of the school. When the city announced it would be targeted for closure, the students held a rally on the front steps, marching band and all. When some of them visited Occupy Wall Street last October, they were so energized they organized a community clean-up around their school with the OWS Sanitation Team.
I came into the building for the first time in the fall of 2010, at the request of community activist and hip-hop pioneer Rodney 'Radio Rahim' Deas. Rodney belongs to the Coalition for Public Education, which opposes mayoral control -- explicitly because of what it has meant for schools like Robeson. Rodney had heard of me as "that teacher who used hip hop in the classroom" when I taught digital media to drop-outs in Red Hook. The kids had just been dealt a blow at Robeson, and they needed some positive energy; so we came in.
That year, Robeson had three principals. None of them seemed particularly interested, however, in the work we were doing after-school with students: media literacy, guitar lessons, math tutoring, and more. Like many teachers in the DOE, Stefanie Siegel - a veteran teacher and mother figure at Robeson - shut her door to keep the learning in. The hallways were filled with cops -- who'd simply been renamed "School Safety Officers" and stripped of their guns. They didn't need guns; their mouths fired off obscenities at the youth, and their metal detectors and wands turned the school into something of a prison.
Our oasis of learning continued, unchecked by the administration. We didn't mind; in fact it made our work easier. The students designed curricula and presentations for workshops and conferences, even scoring first place at the 2011 NYU Social Justice expo. Our colleagues heard about our work through the grapevine, and started to ask us about "those fighters at Robeson".
Eventually, the DOE, the state, Pearson (a private school company), and others sent their suits into Robeson to check in and spread the blame around. Yet no one seemed keen to discuss how over-crowded the school had become. Bloomberg's "small schools movement" had sent kids from farther and farther away, flooding into the building. The dwindling number of large high schools in NYC were becoming Ellis Islands of refugee students: kicked out, counseled-out, or dropped-out of schools the DOE had turned its back on through "phase-outs".
We plotted out our plan to save the school that fall. We formed Robeson Unite, an effort to boost morale and organize as a united front against the closure.
Students built a website, and spread the word through social media. They put out statements and landed meetings with DOE brass. They struggled daily to communicate updates at the breakneck pace of the power shift in their building. Ownership of a one-time anchor of the community was being re-negotiated, but the students weren't invited to the negotiating table.
Three months later, when the night of the final decision came, the feeling had already sunk in at Robeson that things were about to change in a big way. Teachers would lose their jobs, and classrooms would switch hands as new, better-funded schools with "start-up grants" entered the building. No new freshmen would be enrolled in the school; and the existing students were offered little choice but to go down with the sinking ship. Most weren't offered any opportunity to transfer or given any additional resources to cope with the changes imposed by adults positioned far away. Changes like "policy missiles", as one unabashed education advocate Brian Jones put it.
The phase-out had begun. As the 2011-2012 school year arrived, the once-crowded halls of the school began to look more and more deserted. The DOE doesn't properly track the outcomes of students in schools like Robeson, but it's safe to say they are dismal (to illustrate a little, 13% of Robeson students are homeless.)
As students enter the school building each day, they face constant verbal abuse from school safety officers. Metal detectors thwart their attempts to bring cell phones into the building, so they pay the lady at the corner bodega $1 each day to store the phones. (Keep in mind that their parents have an interest in the students having their phones on their way to/from school.) Recognizing this highly-profitable venture, entrepreneurs in vans outside schools across NYC offer to stash students' phones for the day. Here at Robe, the principal sought to counteract this trend by quietly offering to hold the phones for the day - as a means of leashing students to school until the 3 p.m. bell.
But when administrators moved lunch to 1:56 p.m., students at Paul Robeson began to cut class en masse in the afternoon. Perhaps capitalizing on student truancy seemed a convenient way to deal with the squeeze on cafeteria space. The students barely minded the change--by then they were used to being shuffled around--and most left at that time to go buy food instead of eat the bland "free-free" DOE offered them in the cafeteria.
The phase-out severely dampened spirits at Robeson, but another project Radio and I were embarking on caused a stir of interest: Occupy Wall Street. When I was arrested in Zuccotti Park, I missed class, and my students worried what had happened to me. The next week, they boldly came to Zuccotti Park to see what was happening. They saw parallels between the police treatment of peaceful protesters and their friends in East New York and Canarsie, stopped and frisked without cause for wearing a hoodie or looking "suspicious".
The energy of Occupy began to infect students everywhere, spreading from school to school. At Robe, it wasn't long before the students were brainstorming actions -- and soon they planned a community clean-up with OWS Sanitation.
A group of parents and teachers started Occupy The DOE, taking over school board meetings and shutting them down. At the February PEP meeting (Panel for Educational Policy), it was the students who brought the meeting to a halt, and the DOE sent in rows of police officers with flex-cuffs. Officers pushed past young children and grandparents to intimidate the youth who had come out to protest the DOE's treatment of their school.
This energy, so long suppressed by a myriad of top-down technocratic school administrators and lawyers, could not be contained any more at Robeson. With the support and endorsement of the Coalition For Public Education, Chuck D, M1 and many others, the student leaders gathered together and called for a Mass Student Walkout on May 1st, in solidarity with the call from Occupy Wall Street. The plan was to converge at Fort Greene Park to discuss their grievances, which ranged from privatization of schools to the failed cell phone policy.
When the day came, the students poured out of the building and the community stood ready to greet them.
Would Paul Robeson have walked out with the students that spring morning? I believe it unequivocally. He would have linked arms with a generation of youth whose futures have been sold, mortgaged to pay for the follies of a few old men who they'll never meet. He would have looked the principal in the face and asked him why he didn't walk out alongside them, but instead chose to suspend them. Incongruously, he forced them to read Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail during their in-school suspension.
Actually, it is only fitting that the students returned to the building (I won't call it a school, a term reserved for places of learning) to read that sacred document. It was "because injustice is here" that King wrote that letter, and injustice is alive and well at Paul Robeson High School. Robe has become a literal jail, its windows barred up and its entrances locked to visitors. When Radio and I returned to the building after the walkout, the principal ordered us arrested. It was an order which the school safety officers would not dare enforce in the presence of students and teachers, so the NYPD blue-shirts were called in with their guns.
This is an environment of incarceration, not education.
This is an environment of imprisonment, not liberation.
And Paul Robeson would be ashamed.
Justin Wedes is an educator and activist and the co-founder of the Paul Robeson Freedom School, a pilot program beginning in Williamsburg, Brooklyn this summer. To support the Freedom School, attend the launch next Wednesday night at For My Sweet, 1103 Fulton St, Brooklyn
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