Although Paul Robeson High School is slated to be phased out and replaced by 2014 due to poor performance, its students have not stopped fighting for their education. In early April, Paul Robeson students called for a mass student walkout on May 1, a day historically designated to fight for labor and immigrant workers’ rights that originated in the United States and has spread around the world.
“Dear New York City, we the students of public education are here to inform you about the injustice that is taking place in our school system,” reads the initial letter and call to action, signed by the Student Leadership of Paul Robeson High School and
Paul Robeson students, along with students from the Brooklyn Friends School and Brooklyn Tech High School, came together at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn in a protest of about 150 students. At the walkout, students also called for all GED classes to be free and for an education that encompasses the history of their diverse backgrounds.
While some may have seen this as a ploy by students to get out of school for a day, the students planned a day of educational activities once they left their school buildings.
“We’re not out here to play around. Let’s make a change–knowledge is power, we’re out here to learn,” said Pier, one of the students who participated in and helped organize the walkout. “This [walkout and rally] is part one, and part two is next: teach-ins from people who have their degree and will teach us the right way, not the way they teach us in these schools that they’re closing down.”
Joined by community members, high school teachers, college professors, “Occupy the Hood” organizers, OWS protesters and other general supporters, these students held both a speak-out and teach-ins as a way to continue their education after leaving their school buildings.
“You are at a historic moment in public education in New York City. We have to take it to the next level,” said professor Sam Anderson, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party in Harlem, who held a teach-in for students. “So we have no option–even when you graduate from high school, you’re going to have to fight to save public education. Today you have done something very powerful and very positive, and we’re going to make sure that very powerful and very positive thing continues.”
The Coalition of Public Education offered college-level teachers to lead the students’ teach-ins and “to ensure [the students] have a safe and organized day of learning,” according to a letter signed by Jitu Weusi, the
Brooklyn co-chairman of the coalition. Save Our Streets and many other organizations also led teach-ins for the students during their protest.
Many parents also supported their children’s protest by sending in letters to public school teachers explaining that while their students wouldn’t be in school, they would still be “heavily engaged in education” and “the political process in this country–direct democracy played out in its truest form–in the streets,” as one letter put it.
And the students did head into the streets, making their way to Union Square to join thousands of union members, immigrant workers and OWS protesters at a rally and march to Wall Street.
“It was already the general strike, and most of the issues they are talking about have to do with education, and Black and Hispanic students don’t get a fair chance. That’s why I came out today,” said Rukiya, one of the student protesters.
While college students have typically been the center of political movements, and this year’s May Day has a Free University dedicated for college students who will also be conducting school walkouts, high school students protesting their own underperforming school is an idea that may be becoming more prevalent across the nation. Last week, high school students in Detroit scheduled a student walkout to demand a better education. When the students who walked out were suspended for their protest, they started the “Freedom School” across the street from their main school building and attended classes throughout the school day and even into the weekend.
“It’s really a pleasure to see all of you guys out here. We’re at that point in our lives where we are the future, and we need to be building these futures together,” said Myra, one of the students who participated in the walkout and student speak-out Tuesday in Brooklyn. “It’s important that all the students fight for our education and we fight against the mis-education that happens.”