Students and Teachers Fight Back Against School Segregation

By Aixa Rodriguez and Peter Lamphere

Students and teachers are pointing  the way forward for getting action, not just rhetoric, on the issue of racial equity in schools. And their actions have deep roots.  

The national teacher strike wave took a qualitative step forward last month when racial justice and school segregation motivated teachers in Little Rock Arkansas to organize a one-day walkout of the city’s schools. The strike aimed to end the state’s takeover of their district as well as its decertification of their union which teachers felt was part of a push to resegregate Little Rock schools, site of some of the key battles of the Civil Rights movement

Simultaneously, students in New York City have initiated a weekly set of strikes against school segregation, putting pressure on a do-nothing mayor and chancellor.

Little Rock’s fight began when the Arkansas State Board of Education took over the school system in 2015.  It had promised to return the district to local control in 2020, but reneged, saying that it retain control of so-called “F-graded schools,” all but one of which were in Black neighborhoods. When the teachers union pledged to fight against this plan, the district withdrew recognition of the union, provoking the strike. Also at issue was solidarity with school support staff who were fighting for a decent contract with the district. 

In the wake of the strike, Little Rock issued disciplinary letters for striking teachers – who responded by framing them. The fight continues as the state board continues to run roughshod over local control, including large-scale firings of teachers and school mergers

The Little Rock teachers action is the latest episode in a wave of strikes that has rocked school districts from West Virginia to LA and Chicago. Although other strikes have combined demands around racial justice, the Little Rock strike represents a step forward in the  teacher strike movement. 

In Kentucky in 2018, for example, the movement against legislation slashing education budgets and teacher pensions also had some teachers opposing a racist anti-gang bill put forward by the same legislature. Racial justice has been a central theme for a number of urban strikes, too including in LA, where teachers focused on the needs of black and latino students and immigrant students, and most recently Chicago, where strike demands centered on librarians, nurses and counselors for high needs schools. However, this is the first time that a strike has put the issue of school segregation as one of its central demands.

New York City has long had the most segregated school system in the country, and despite politician’s rhetoric, little has actually been done to address the issue. Under pressure at the state level and from New Yorkers who wish to preserve the status quo, Mayor De Blasio recently walked back his plan to eliminate the specialized high school admissions test. Chancellor Carranza, after waiting for over a year to hear from the School Diversity Advisory Group, has yet to weigh in about what he will actually do about the committee’s recommendations which were issued in August.

In New York City, the student activists of Teens Take Charge decided to dramatize the impact of segregation on their educational experiences. They have called for strikes every Monday until they get a response from the mayor. These students are calling for an end to screening, integrated schools for all and equitable resources and funding. The strikes began at NYC iSchool and Chelsea CTE High School on November 18th.

On Monday, December 2nd, in the blistering cold, 300 students from Beacon High school shut down the street in a walkout demanding integration and calling attention to the impact of resource hoarding and privilege at their school. Calling for integration now, the students gathered to share their experiences and dramatize how the system does not work for all students and has had an impact on them too, even with the privileges they recognize. This was followed by strikes at NYC Lab School on December 9th and this week PACE High School..

The youth move towards school strikes is clearly influenced by the rise of the teachers strikes across the country. And teachers and students have increasingly been fighting together. In Little Rock, for example, students participated in the protests against the state takeover plan, and three-quarters of students refused to show up to school during the strike. Teens Take Charge is following in the path of other student activists.  Their strategy of garnering attention, pushing for change through regular channels and bringing up the pressure through more dramatic displays are intended to provoke politicians to act. These are not the first such efforts.

Integrate NYC is another student led activist group in NYC fighting alongside TTC. They have developed a framework called the 5Rs of Real Integration to create lasting, revolutionary change in our school system. Together with parent group NYCCEJ, they successfully lobbied for culturally responsive training for teachers, and restorative justice.

The Newark Student Union famously occupied the office of the unpopular Superintendent Cami Anderson, leading to her eventual ouster. As in Little Rock, the Newark protest centered on a controversial reorganization plan that would replace school leaders and move school communities. Students demanded the superintendent show up to Newark Public School Advisory board which she had refused to attend for a year, ignoring parents, community leaders and students. The four day occupation of Anderson’s office demanding her resignation was live streamed on Youtube, attracted broad support, rallies and food donations while garnering national attention.

Similarly, the Philadelphia Student Union has organized large-scale walkouts to protest budget cuts and underfunding. Also on the agenda of these student activists is fighting the school-to-prison pipeline by advocating for limiting suspensions and expulsions, building restorative practice program, and pushing back against school closures.

Here in New York City, we face colossal battles to come as well to win real progress on integrating the schools. After nearly two years of deliberation, the Mayor’s School Diversity Advisory Group put forward some serious recommendations about how to move towards a more integrated school district, including the phase out of Gifted and Talented programs and middle school screens which have been engines of inequality.  However, the Mayor and his Chancellor, Richard Carranza, have simply said they are weighing the recommendations and have been silent on integration for the past 5 months. 

Only concerted action between students and teachers and parents  can win real victories against segregation. Real solutions will only come from the grassroots pressure and organizing. It remains to be seen what role the teachers union in New York will play, but those of us in MORE remain committed to working with our student allies and mobilizing our power in our schools to fight for racial equity.

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