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In activist era, high-schoolers from Boston to Detroit take to streets

Shifts in thinking

In Boston, more than 3,000 students walked out of school Monday to protest cuts to high schools. It’s a sign of how today’s young people are demanding a seat at the table when decisions are made about their education.

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    Thousands of Boston public school students gather and protest on the Boston Common, across from the Statehouse, Monday. Students walked out of class and marched to the Statehouse to demonstrate against proposed budget cuts. On Friday, Mayor Martin Walsh planned to announce a new budget that spared the high schools.
    David L Ryan/The Boston Globe/AP
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More than 3,000 students walked out of Boston Public Schools Monday, many of them converging near the gold-domed Massachusetts State House chanting “student power” and carrying handmade signs with messages like “School Lives Matter” and “Our Teachers Matter” to protest pending budget cuts.

On Friday, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh was expected to announce a new budget plan that would spare the high schools from cuts.

It was a huge victory for a virtually spontaneous movement. Less than two weeks ago, a few dozen concerned students put together a call to protest proposed budget cuts using the hashtag #bpswalkout, with no way of knowing how many of their peers would come out to draw attention to their frustrations over electives, advanced courses, and beloved teachers being chipped away at in their schools.

High school and college students have long played a role in social-change movements, from desegregation and civil rights to antiwar protests. Boston’s display was just one way that today’s young students are demanding a seat at the table when decisions are made about their education.

“The emerging student activism movement is incredibly broad, incredibly diverse, and it’s been sparked by this newfound sense of empowerment that comes from social media [and] the ability to make your voice heard in areas where traditionally that hasn’t been possible,” says Andrew Brennen, national field director of Student Voice, a student-led group that started with #stuvoice to amplify young people’s views.

Other recent examples of students flexing their muscles as activists even before reaching college:

  • In Newark, N.J., students staged a four-day sit-in at district headquarters last year to protest the leadership of Superintendent Cami Anderson, who was replaced by state officials several months later.
  • In Chicago, hundreds of students rallied one evening last November and held a die-in to symbolize the budget crisis.
  • In Detroit in January, students staged walkouts in support of teachers who had been taken to court by the state-appointed emergency manager for staging “sickouts” over deplorable conditions in schools.
  • In Houston, students took their concerns to the courthouse in September, writing an amicus brief in a case demanding more equitable school funding in Texas.

“We don’t promote kids leaving school or boycotting. Having said that, we’re very proud of them that they are taking responsibility for their own education and fighting for their needs,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

‘It was students’ idea’

In Boston, where a coalition of advocacy groups has been pushing for giving schools more priority in the city budget, comments by some officials suggesting that these adult groups had unduly influenced the protests have rankled many students.

“It was students’ idea to walk out,” says Jade Williams-Griffin, a 16-year-old who attends Jeremiah E. Burke High School. She and more than half the students in her school left Monday despite attempts by administrators and security to block them and threaten some with suspension, she says.

Her school had been slated to lose a technology teacher, a librarian, a social worker, and Spanish, the only foreign language offered there, according to a list circulated by a parent blogger.

Instead of cutting the high school budgets, the School Department will now delay about $6 million in new programs and pull dollars from district-wide budget items, city officials told The Boston Globe.

“It’s like we have taken so much, and now we’re overcoming,” Jade says. “We definitely made an impact. We’re a force to be recognized now.”

Students at Snowden International School, concerned about losing a Japanese teacher and other cuts, launched #bpswalkout to organize their peers before and during the demonstration.

In a letter posted on Twitter by Jailyn Lopez, a sophomore at Snowden, students were urged to protest on Monday: “... no matter what class you’re in get up and walk out of school,” the letter read. “Let’s stand up for our future, if we don’t then no one will.”

“It was completely youth-led,” says Marléna Rose, coordinator of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. She laughs about how she and other adults in her group were on hand the day of the walkouts, wearing yellow armbands and thinking they could “marshal the kids and make sure they were safe and stayed on the sidewalk – and here comes 3,500 kids.... It was the most wonderful, exciting thing that I’ve been a part of in a long time.”

Social media’s role in the activism

The lightning-fast social networking of students has stunned organizers who came of age in the era of circulating fliers and knocking on doors.

But social media’s role in student activism has been evident for at least a decade. In 2006, 100,000 students around the country walked out of public schools in the course of a week. The walkouts were largely sparked by undocumented immigrant students who took to Myspace.com calling for protests against a tough immigration bill proposed in Congress that they feared would break up their families.

When students organize and receive encouragement, “it kind of catches fire after a while. Young people start to feel like, ‘I do have a voice, I can make a change.’ It’s becoming more popular to be an activist,” says Sheri Bridgeman, Boston program director for the nonprofit Teen Empowerment.

But when protests are brewing, school administrators have to strike a balance between their responsibilities to keep students in school and the desire to encourage civic engagement.

Boston Public Schools issued a written statement after the protests, which read in part: “While BPS encourages student activism and advocacy, we do not condone students leaving school without permission and missing valuable instruction time. The district is working collaboratively with student leadership organizations to provide students across the city opportunities to lead meaningful discussions on the BPS budget process.”

When it comes to public resources, debates are perennial. Boston already spends more per student than many surrounding towns, taxpayers pointed out in letters to the editor.

“There’s a natural tendency for student movements to say, ‘You’ve got to spend more.’ But urban policymakers are also hearing that from housing advocates, first responders, any number of folks,” says Frederick Hess, an education policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Students can really put a face on problems in schools, Mr. Hess says, but “it’s not like we haven’t been talking about how to improve the quality of urban education for the last 50 years. It’s actually complicated.”

In one Ohio town, ‘school pushout’

What sparks student activism, and how it takes shape, is often a function of any given local situation.

In Dayton, Ohio, for instance, students have been adding their voice to a movement started by African-American mothers against “school pushout.” They have seen their children, particularly boys or students with disabilities, too often removed from school for behaviors that could be dealt with better through policies that reflect research on childhood development, says Zakiya Sankara-Jabar of Racial Justice Now.

“Most of our young people knew something was wrong, but they just sort of expected it [and thought] there’s no other way.” But since her group has actively supported shifts such as more restorative justice, “it really has helped them ... be able to speak up for themselves.”

Many young people are held back by “learned helplessness” because their voices are so marginalized in schools, says Mr. Brennen of Student Voice. But he senses a national “shift in consciousness among students. Students are thinking more critically about the role they can play in school.”

Baltimore County Superintendent S. Dallas Dance says the best way to handle students’ desire to protest is for principals to stay in touch with their student body and genuinely address their concerns.

When a protest was brewing over a student being told he couldn’t present a poem because it contained offensive material, for instance, the high school principal and an assistant superintendent sat down with the students – and the conversation satisfied them, Mr. Dance says. Protests around social-justice issues have been channeled in productive ways so that they did not disrupt school time, he adds.

“School superintendents or principals who threaten or try to give some type of discipline, it almost, in many cases, does the exact opposite of what we want to teach our young people,” Dance says.

• Staff writer Paula Rogo contributed to this report.

[Editor’s note: The spelling of the name Andrew Brennen, of Student Voice, has been corrected.]

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