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Students frustrated with the city’s plan to shut down their high school walked out of class today and marched two-and-a-half miles in support of Occupy Wall Street’s May Day.
Separate from the chaotic protests in Manhattan — which, as expected, are getting a lot of attention for their arrests and police-protester confrontations — the rally in Brooklyn was peaceful and remained focused on a number of key education issues in the city that have gotten support from Occupy Wall Street. The march was organized and led by high school students with some help from a handful of OWS-ers.
The Voice first caught up with students at noon in Crown Heights from Paul Robeson High School — a struggling school the city is in the process of phasing out. It’s the time of the year when education rallies and heated Panel for Educational Policy meetings make headlines as critics target Mayor Bloomberg’s controversial practice of shutting down failing schools. It’s one of a handful of policies that have fueled criticisms over mayoral control, the governance structure that gives Bloomberg direct authority over the education system.
Today, about 50 students walked out of Paul Robeson and marched several miles to Fort Greene Park where they met up with another local high school and had a “teach-in” as well as a speak-out sessions.
“Morale is really low,” said senior Ana Leguillou who was a marshall for the walkout. “I heard of other schools being closed, but I never thought I would personally go through it. It’s not an easy transition. We’ve lost a lot.”
Critics of the closure policy argue that the schools don’t have enough resources and that the city is concentrating difficult populations into one school that is set up to fail. And closing the school, they say, doesn’t solve the problem. The mayor has repeatedly defended the policy, arguing that the schools he has opened have done better and serve the same populations as the shuttered schools.
At Robeson, the city is slowly decreasing the population — with the final freshmen class enrolling last year.
“No matter what we do, Robeson is doomed to be phased out,” Leguillou, who is going to study game design in college next year, told the Voice. “There’s nothing we can do to stop them…But even though Paul Robeson may no longer exist, the students still exist. Their knowledge and their history still lives on.”
Sue Cho-Chun, another Robeson student leader, said she hopes these kinds of actions will help other schools that might be under consideration for closure.
“We’re doing it for everybody else. It’s already too late for us,” said Cho-Chun, 18, and a senior. “We feel their pain.”
Leguillou also pointed to the difficulties her school has faced with co-locations, another controversial Bloomberg policy, where new schools move into DOE buildings forcing them to share space with pre-existing programs. She said that Robeson has lost nearly two floors of school space and students now have to share the library, the gym, and the cafeteria with another school.
Students marched on Fulton Street with signs that had a student bill of rights and statements like, “We are students, not statistics,” and “Education is a right, not a commodity.”
Three police officers walked alongside the march, sometimes stopping traffic and keeping the protesters on the sidewalk, as the students mic-checked along the way, shouting, “Robeson! Robeson!” and “Education is under attack. What do we do? Stand up, fight back!”
The message of the protests and speeches often reverted back to Bloomberg and mayoral control. Sam Anderson, a retired professor and a founding member of the Black Panthers, told students outside the school that the people need to take the board of education out of the hands of the mayor.
He is part of a group called Coalition for Public Education that is advocating for the end of mayoral control and a new governance structure that gives parents and communities a serious role in the education system.
In his ideal structure, he told the Voice while marching, “The governance is from the school to the neighborhood to the district to the borough to the city level. Now, it’s the opposite. The foundation is based on education as a human right.” He is interested in a model that relied on local school boards where members are democratically elected as opposed to the top-down approach Bloomberg has relied on. We asked him what he thought of the proposal of some expected mayoral candidates that mayoral control should remain in place but parents and communities should be given a stronger voice in the process.
“That’s equivalent to saying, ‘I’m a little bit pregnant,'” he said. “It’s like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube.” (Bloomberg would probably agree — in response to the suggestions of potential mayoral candidates that mayoral control should be adjusted to better include other stakeholders, he said, “Either you run it, or you don’t.”)
The Bloomberg bashing continued when City Councilman Charles Barron, who is running for Congress stopped by the rally in Fort Greene Park. At that point, students from Brooklyn Technical High School had joined Robeson students.
“We are saying to Mayor Bloomberg: You want to shut stuff down? Shut down Tweed. Shut down the Department of Education,” said Barron, who typically uses strong language when criticizing the mayor’s education policies.
He added, “Shut your mouth and get out of town!”