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Portland Students Walk Out to Take Back Their Voices

By George Joseph

Photo of a young woman in front of a crowd of students holding banners and signs in support of better schools and in solidarity with teachers

People in the “education reform” movement often claim that policy makers must put students’ needs over teachers’ demands. Whether it be Michelle Rhee’s “Students First” lobbying campaign or corporate-sponsored “student activist” groups like Teach for America and Students for Education Reform, education reformers have the gall to claim to do what’s best for students without even taking the time to listen to students on their own terms. But on January 10th, in coordination with students across the Portland, almost two hundred students at Jefferson High School walked out of class in support of their teachers’ battle for a fair contract, shattering the false dichotomy set up between students’ demands and teachers’ needs. In choosing to walk out by themselves for their teachers, students did more than show solidarity; they broke the silence about what education reform really means, taking back their voices in the process.

Since last summer the Portland Association of Teachers has been locked in a battle with the school district over everything ranging from the usual contract struggles for health care benefits and fairer salaries to blatant school quality issues like the district’s attempt to remove class size caps and teacher caseload limits. Only in corporate America could larger classes between fewer teachers mean putting “students first.” Inspired by the social justice unionism of the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, teachers in Portland put forth a bargaining proposal, “The Schools Portland Students Deserve,” outlining a vision for a more equitable, community oriented school system, immediately rallying the support of students and community activists behind them. As Portland High School teacher Adam Sanchez laughed, “In an email to parents, the district said they were the ones fighting for the education that Portland students deserve and acting in the interests of students, but it becomes very difficult to do that when you have students walking out in support of teachers and going to school board meetings, saying ‘stop your union-busting agenda.’”
Sekai Edwards, one of the walkout organizers and a Jefferson delegate of the Portland Student Union, recalled that once classmates learned more about the issues, they felt even more convinced about the walkout. Students at Jefferson are upset because the district regularly closes down and lumps together feeder schools in their area, while leaving the middle schools in wealthier whiter parts of Portland untouched. Edwards explained, “Its good to remember that Jefferson High School, 53% of our population is African American and only 17% is Caucasian, so we have a lot of things that happen to us that are obviously racially motivated.” When students learned that their teachers in the new contract deal were going to be even more judged by their test scores, despite the districts refusal to give them equal quality middle schools, they realized they could no longer be silent. Edwards concluded, “Jefferson High School is not failing me, the district is failing me by closing my schools and not giving me a good educational system or environment to learn-that’s our biggest issue.”

Ian Jackson, a senior at Portland’s Cleveland High School and also a leader of the Portland Student Union, took part in a simultaneous rally at his school. He reflected on the larger pressures pushing students to mobilize, “I don’t know if students necessarily identify the neoliberalism that’s causing this, but they see the effects. We see what’s happening in our schools and as it gets worse students rise up.” Jackson blamed the district’s bargaining in bad faith for pushing teachers to the brink, “I personally believe they may have to take a strike vote. And just like in Chicago, we will obviously be prepared to do more walk outs, stand on the picket line with our teachers, and do what it takes to win the strike.”

Students, particularly at Jefferson, recalled the constant hounding they felt from district guards and principals before the walkout even happened. “The administration told us that if we continued to pass out papers we would be suspended and we were also told that disciplinary actions would be taken against us if we continued to plan and orchestrate the walkout,” said Edwards. The administration even went so far as to lie to students, claiming to organizers that no punishments would be levied, while warning students and staff that disciplinary action must be meted out. Sensing the worries of her classmates Edwards and fellow organizer Mikey Garcia approached their principal, “We asked her if she was going to take disciplinary actions against the students that walk out, and she told us ‘no,’” said Edwards. “But then 15 minutes after she left she sent out an email to all of the staff that said anybody who walks out you have to mark them absent for the whole class, any athlete needs to be reported and we’re not going to allow them to play. She just lied to our face.”

Despite these threats, students from around the district felt in taking action they were living up to the higher values their teachers had instilled in them and fighting back against the factory style pedagogy, advocated by reformers attempting to impost one size fits all test-prep curriculum. As Edwards put it, “It was a moment where I think we were doing something that we weren’t supposed to do, but we we’re standing up for our rights and that’s something our teachers try to educate us on everyday, and we have some of the most amazing teachers in the county, so I think when they saw so many students standing up and fighting for them and really being like, ‘look, we know this is wrong,’ they were just so happy.” As Emily Crum, an active elementary teacher in the neighboring Reynolds’ school district explained, “Walking out is an action counter to the standardized model of education reformers seek to impose on students. There are two types of education, the industrial ‘give me the right answers’ way, where you accept low wage jobs and no health care rights and then there are students that can actually think about all of these things that we’re facing as a world. Those are the types of people we need to foster.”

While on the outset it seems that the Portland student walkouts are about concrete grievances like teachers’ benefits and class size, it is clearly also about much more. In walking out, students have declared that the disastrous era of neoliberal “education reform” can no longer be carried out in their name. Students will no longer allow themselves to be portrayed as victims, trotted out in films like “Waiting for Superman” to promote privatization. Because when they abandon their classrooms and scream out against those reformers, claiming to “put students first,” their actions free them to finally speak for themselves. And when it comes down it, isn’t that what education is all about?

Follow George on Twitter @GeorgeJoseph94.

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George Joseph

George Joseph is a labor and education reporter, who looks to The Wire and Toblerones for daily inspiration

Catch up with me @GeorgeJoseph94.






January 13, 2014

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