High School Students Protesting Corporate Education Reform

Why High Schools Students Will Ultimately Take the Lead in Protests Against Corporate Education Reform: A View From the Bronx

bronx high school

Bronx high schoolers protesting (Photo: New York Daily News)

This spring, one of my best students just completed a brilliant senior thesis on what the school experience is like for students who attend the six high schools, in what was once Roosevelt High School, across the street from Fordham’s Bronx campus.

The picture is not a pretty one. Students have to pass through metal detectors to enter schools with “zero tolerance policies” for infractions ranging from wearing a hat, to being found on a different floor than the one your school is located on to going to the bathroom without permissions. Some of these infractions lead to suspensions; if you protest too vigorously, they could lead to arrest.

The classroom experience is little better. Student describe classes almost strictly confined to memorizing material for New York State Regents exams. When students begin discussing interesting subjects, teachers shut the discussion down for fear it might undermine student performance upon tests which their own careers now rely on. Though teachers try to help students and clearly care for them, they are visibly under extreme stress because of fear that if test scores don’t improve, their schools might be closed and they will lose their jobs

The fear spills over into the treatment of students who repeatedly fail tests or who have multiple behavioral infractions. Such students are subtly and not so subtly encouraged, by school administrators, to drop out of school lest they undermine the schools test profile or the atmosphere of disciplined obedience required for relentless test prep

Students at the schools in question are resentful, but not explicitly politicized. They rebel, but the ways they rebel take the form of what historian Robin Kelley called “the hidden transcript’ rather than strikes and walkouts. Students who have been disciplined for violating school rules, or are just resentful about the police state atmosphere, have all kind of ways of showing their contempt :

  • They go out of their way to argue with or “bait” police and security officers;
  • they come late and leave early;
  • they start fights with fellow students or insult and challenge teachers.

But at some point, as the communities they live in become more politicized — which is starting to happen in the Bronx, especially around the issues of police violence and racial profiling — these students are going to ask some hard questions about what they are being put through in the name of getting an education.

And what they conclude may be something like this: “Wait a minute, we are being asked to spent six hours a day doing nothing but sitting at our desks memorizing material for tests, so we can graduate from high school and do what? Go to a college we can’t afford? Get a job working in a fast food restaurant or a big box realtor? Join the military? And even if by some chance we do go to college, is the result worth it when we finally graduate? What do we get? Tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt and jobs that don’t offer salaries sufficient to pay them off?”

The young people my student interviewed are nowhere near that point yet, but they are starting to realize that something is very wrong. It is one thing to subject yourself to prison-like conditions and militarized discipline if the result is escape from poverty and a ticket to the good life. But what if neither of those result from all this sacrifice?

When that realization begins to sink in, and as students see protests in their neighborhoods against racial profiling, evictions, and foreclosures, and closings of day care centers and after school programs, don’t be surprised of these students follow the example of neighborhood activists. They may begin organizing strikes and walkouts to demand that schools be places where real learning takes place and where there are extracurricular activities that make school interesting and nurture skills the students themselves value

There are signs of these kind of high school protests happening around the country — in Detroit, in Maryland, in some portions of New York City — but they are going to expand incrementally in the next few years as justice activism spreads into working class neighborhoods and as Corporate Education reform erodes even more student rights.

mark naison

In elementary schools, parents will be the ones taking the lead against Corporate School Reform; in high schools it will be the students. From my point of view, anything we can do to promote this day of reckoning is positive. Organizing Freedom Schools in inner city and working class neighborhoods that allow students to critically assess their surrounding would be one big step in that direction.

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent

Posted: Saturday, 28 April 2012

Published by the LA Progressive on April 28, 2012
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