High School Students Rising

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Faced with shrinking budgets and a test-centric reform agenda, high school students across the country
are fighting back. Risking expulsion and even arrest, students are confronting
broken policies with walkouts, boycotts, and other creative actions

post originally appeared at Waging

“You’re going to be expelled,” an
administrator at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md., just twenty minutes
away from the Washington, D.C., line, told the two boys sitting in her
office on March 1, 2012.

“What?” Ricardo Fuentes, then a junior,
asked, feigning ignorance.

“Project Xbox.”

Project Xbox was the code-name for the
walkout that Fuentes had helped plan with El Cambio, an activist student group
at Northwestern, for the National Day of Action for Education that day. Hours
before the walkout he and his friend had been pulled into the office and
confronted by the school’s administration. Administrators had pinpointed the
two boys as key organizers — though only Fuentes was actually involved — and
were determined to put a stop to it. They held the boys in the room for seven
hours, offering to let them out only to visit lunch periods to tell people to
stop the walkout. Fuentes, already resigned to his fate, refused to cooperate.

That afternoon, the sound of 400 students
walking out of class — nearly a third of the school’s population — flooded
Northwestern’s halls. Students were met at the door with teachers,
administrators, security and police officers. They could see canine units
waiting for them in the parking lot. Students turned back and started marching
through the halls, searching for another exit, when they were blocked off at
staircases. In the end, Fuentes and three of his friends were suspended for six
days for helping to organize the walkout.

The walkout was not an aimless excuse to
skip school, but a calculated response to a specific list of grievances. El
Cambio’s communiqué, which it circulated in advance of the walkout, named seven
grievances: disgusting bathroom conditions, enormous class sizes, teachers who
had been refused pay raises three years in a row, the denial of promised
funding for their band to go to nationals, cuts to funding for English-as-a-second-language
programs, exploited and deported Filipino teachers, and the lack of a
meaningful student role in the decision-making process. These grievances
describe the conditions of many of Prince
George’s County public schools. In a state that has
been ranked number one in education for five
consecutive years
, Prince George’s County
has only a single school that performs at or above the Maryland average, with almost all other
schools falling well below it.

El Cambio found support among some
teachers, who privately coached and guided the first-time organizers or gave
their tacit approval. But others opposed the students’ activism altogether. One
teacher went as far as to admonish Fuentes for El Cambio’s inclusion of
teachers’ concerns among their grievances.

Though Northwestern’s walkout is
exceptional in the region, it is not altogether unique. In the past year, for
instance, there have been a series of walkouts in high schools in New York City, most notably the May 1,
2012, walk
out of
students at Paul Roebson
High School in Brooklyn
organized with Occupy Wall Street.

High school organizing presents a
different kind of situation than college organizing. In public high schools,
students are closely tied to their neighborhoods and their homes. They are not
merely temporary residents, as many college students are, but members of their
communities. Most of them have grown up in the area or lived there for a long
time; many will continue to live there for most of their lives. They have a
long-term commitment to the quality of their schools and neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, high schoolers live under demanding, unyielding schedules determined
by administrators who routinely ignore and marginalize students’ voices.

“I think that high schoolers always get
forgotten,” Fuentes said. “They think that everything is easy for us, and it’s

“It is authoritarian. We don’t feel like
we have any power,” said Shane James, a senior at Northwestern who was
suspended for helping to organize the walkout with El Cambio. “When you have no
power over what dominates your life, you feel like you are powerless as a
person. How are you supposed to learn to be an individual with ideas and a
critical thinker if you don’t feel like you have control over your own ideas?”

Increasingly, public high schools are
inundated with standardized tests and regimented expectations, from which any
deviation is considered a chaotic interruption by the administration. In
response to this kind of environment, in early January, teachers at Garfield High School
in Seattle
voted to refuse to administer the Measure of Academic Progress tests and waged
a small war against their administration. Their boycott of the tests has
inspired similar boycotts among teachers and students in high
schools across the country
, including in Portland
and Rhode Island.

“We’re opting out because we want to send
this greater message about not standardizing our education system,” Alexia
Garcia, the student representative of Portland Public Schools student union.
Her student union, which is sanctioned by the district, in conjunction with the
Portland Student Union, a student-run organization in Portland
high schools, launched an opt-out campaign just a couple weeks after the Seattle teachers did. In Portland, high school juniors must take the Oregon
Assessment of Skills and Knowledge exam, which is used to assess Portland public high
schools — and, starting next year, teachers. Based on this assessment, each
school is given a grade, and it must test at least 95 percent of students in
every demographic in order to get a passing grade. The goal of the opt-out is
to give every school a failing grade by lack of participation, and thus
compromise the whole process.

“We want to send the message that we’d
like to see a more holistic approach and holistic evaluation,” Garcia said.
“There is so much more to a student than how they perform on a test.”

Portland students have found support not only
from their community but from their teachers. The teachers’ union can’t
officially support the students or its members could risk losing their teaching
licenses, but teachers have privately voiced their approval of student’s
actions. Administrators, predictably, have not received the opt-out campaign so
kindly. They’ve sent letters to parents stressing the importance of
standardized testing. Administrators in Portland
have done everything they can to end the student protest.

“We need a new mentality about how
schools are supposed to function and how to educate kids,” James said. “You’re
not going to educate kids by telling them to shut up and be quiet. You’re going
to educate kids by letting them speak out and question authority — by letting
them challenge things and really act on their interests and their passions.”

of gravestone protest signs at John Muir High School
in Pasadena, California, by Jerome
, licensed under Creative Commons

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