Protesting the Mis-education of Pointsville Kids: Reflections of a High School Teacher-turned-Graduate Student
by Jill Carter Ford - June 20, 2006
Recently, the author had an opportunity to witness her former high school students organize to advocate for a better education. The students, who attend a school that is predominantly African American and Latino, staged a walk-out in support of a teacher when his contract was not renewed. In this commentary, the author reflects on student activism, administrator power, and her own concept of self as a new graduate student. By comparing the students’ experiences here with those that might occur in Canada (based on the new Civic Studies Curriculum in British Columbia), she suggests that more can be done in the U.S. to nurture students’ development as engaged citizens.
I flew down the Interstate in my beige Camry and blasted Freedom, a song by 12-year-old Aluwafe about what freedom means to a young Black child. The seasons first warm air tugged at my loose-curled Afro as my heart beat wildly in anticipation of the already-underway student protest at the high school where I had been a social studies teacher before returning full time to graduate school. My friend and former colleague had just called me to let me know that the students had walked out of class. The students were in the process of protesting against the administrations decision not to renew their beloved teachers contract for the next school year. From the point of view of the students and some faculty, the administration had not renewed the teachers contract because he was teaching too much Black history. The administration had been under heavy pressure from the Central Office to improve the school's low performance on the state-mandated tests and thus had staked out a strong position that the recommended curriculum be closely followed. The administrators were particularly sensitive to maintaining a highly disciplined curriculum in a school that was performing poorly. Significantly, these events unfolded at Central High School: a school with a Black administration and a student body that is roughly 90% Black.
I was excited and proud and nervous all at the same time. Excited because agitating for justice is a necessary part of life; proud because my former students were employing the lessons they had learned from history class; nervous because I might face my former boss as a woman not bound to my subservient position and my Jefferson County paycheck. But I am getting ahead of myself; I was still on the road on my way to the school.
Exiting the Interstate onto Eastwood Parkway with Aluwafes song blaring When I think of freedom, I think of my family I squinted my eyes as the sun reflected off a minibus parked on the side of the road. Georgia State Prison was painted in bold black letters on the back and sides of the vehicle, and through the windows I saw metal cages meant to keep the men inside. Except this day, the men were allowed out of the bus: I saw six or seven Black men on the side of the road dressed in full prison attire. I dont know if they were picking up trash, working on the citys failing drainage system, or simply being used as a warning for young Black kids to follow directions from those in positions of power. My mind spun back to images of Black men on chain gangs in the post-WWI era Deep South. In spite of the warm spring air, a chill ran through my body as I considered the message this modern day road-side chain gang sends to the school of 2,100 Black and Latino kids as they converge onto the school each day. I considered the difference between these minibuses with built-in cages and the yellow school buses used to transport the students. Were they not both means of transportation to an institution of control? Were they not both funded by the same entity? Was I witnessing the future troubles of my former students?
I turned up the music a little bit louder, hoping that the brothers on the side of the road could feel some of the love spilling from Aluwafes lyrics, and fought back tears of frustration and anger as I neared the school. About two blocks from the school, I saw an elderly black man being handcuffed and put in the back of a police car as two other patrol cars stood by for support. I wondered what the residents thought about such police activity as I rolled to a stop sign in the halfway-gentrified Jackson Heights neighborhood of Pointsville.
Finally, I arrived at Central High and was struck by the number of cop cars in front of the school as well. I was shocked that this large high school, situated in the midst of a residential area, seemed to be the main agenda item for the police department that morning. I parked on the side of the street and walked over to the students, several of whom called out my name; all of whom sat peacefully and thoughtfully. There were about 150 students sitting around the flagpole in front of the school, and a young junior introduced herself to me as the student leader. We do not think that it is right, Ms. Ford. She explained. He is such a good teacher . He has taught us about Black history and half of these kids wouldnt even be here if it wasnt for Mr. Jones. I could see the sincerity in her eyes as she looked at me and explained the situation. Just then, a former student of mine called me over to a small group of students being interviewed by a Daily News reporter. You see? One of the students gestured toward me vehemently, Like Ms. Ford for example! Every year good teachers leave our school! We need good teachers who know what they are doing, but hardly any of them ever stay .
The internal battle with which I had struggled during my first year of graduate school leaving the trenches for the safety of the ivory tower swelled up in my throat as I glanced at my feet and wished for a moment that I was still teaching at the school.
I listened to the students speak passionately to the newspaper reporters and watched a few parents come to the school to support their childrens actions. A young brother wearing way too big jeans and a white t-shirt, along with a gold chain and gold teeth, hustled up to the small group with which I was standing. Here yall go, he said excitedly as he handed out the flyer he and a few fellow students had created. We typed up all the details of what went down, and here go the part about what we doing today, he said proudly as he pointed to distinct sections of the flyer. Basically, we want Mr. Jones back and we want the same kind of education them kids up in North County be getting.
At that moment, my reason for becoming a teacher materialized before my eyes. I had become a social studies teacher so that I could help guide young people into their roles as active citizens in society. I firmly believed in the curricular jargon that refers to preparing students for participation in local, state, national and in more progressive areas, global communities. I believed it the most important subject to teach, and I unapologetically told my students it was the most important subject to learn. Social Studies, I said often, is not just about learning names and dates. It is about learning how to navigate through our lives thoughtfully and productively. I invested time and energy, during my years in the classroom, encouraging students to write to their representatives, report on current issues, and participate in community events. The young man with oversized jeans and gold teeth, often erroneously characterized as ignorant and dangerous because of his dress and size (oh, and his race as well), was the prototype of engaged citizenry. He got it.
As I stood quietly in the midst of young people organizing, I noticed a police officer walking hurriedly toward me. About 15 yards away, he called Ms. Ford? Are you Ms. Ford? Not knowing who he was, I snapped out of the momentary feeling of joy that comes to a teacher from seeing her students act on their own behalf instead of jumping through hoops to pass a standardized test. Glancing around, as though he was talking to someone other than me, I pointed at my own chest and mouthed Me? I told him that indeed I was Ms. Ford, and he told me that the principal had seen me out of her office window. I am so sorry to tell you this, Ms. Ford, but she told me to order you off school grounds... His next words were clouded by my own astonishment, as I thought of the years of love that I had poured into this school. My usually hidden pride jumped from the depth of my soul, and his buzz words of trespassing and immediate removal became jumbled in my mind as I slowly backed off school grounds to the sidewalk about five yards behind me.
Ironically, my students had been honored for a mid-year video project in which they created a modern version of the PBS special Eyes on the Prize series. Their documentary, titled Souls on the Goal, featured short skits by students who assumed historic roles of those who had actively participated in the Civil Rights movement. My mind raced as I stood on the same sidewalk where my students had filmed their documentary the previous year. They were praised for their historical rendition of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams for voting rights. This day, forty years later, I saw young people gathering again to stand up for a cause they believed in. They were not protesting for longer lunch periods or for more lenient tardy policies. They were protesting for a teacher whom they respected and loved for his devotion to history and for his commitment to them. Instead of praise for a mock protest, however, the students were being shunned for participating in authentic, peaceful protest to elicit positive change.
This protest was the first of many for this group of students, and the activities continued for the next several weeks of school. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, elected officials, and other community members joined the struggle in support of the courageous young people who articulated their points clearly and passionately. The more support the students garnered, the more resistant the administration became. The students argued for the retention of Mr. Jones and for better quality schooling. They cited old textbooks, overcrowded classrooms, and inconsistent administrators as problems that needed to be addressed.
The students at Central High acted from their heart. They protested for a cause in which they believed; they have learned from history that peaceful protest can bring positive change. I still cannot wash the bitter taste or irony from my mouth as I grapple with the fact that the high school administrators who themselves are African American intimidated and suspended the African American student activists. This unyielding hegemony occurred on the same red Georgia clay that our Black forefathers and mothers walked as slaves and Civil Rights activists.
At a recent Citizenship Education Conference I attended in Toronto, it came to my attention that students in British Columbia are not only not punished for collectively organizing, but that they are actually encouraged to do so. In their newly developed Civic Studies 11 course curriculum, students are required to
research and outline a plan for responsible civic action on a selected civic issue or problem, including steps such as the following: ... identify locally available options for civic participation (e.g., volunteering with an existing organization, launching an informational campaign, organizing a demonstration, working for a political party or elections campaign). (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2005).
In an age of rapid globalization and increased transnational movement, the schools in British Columbia have recognized that it is the schools responsibility to help prepare young people to participate responsibly in our increasingly diverse societies. Central High in fact, many U.S. schools should take a page from their book.
What kind of institutions are U.S. secondary schools where innovative teachers can be removed? Why would a teacher who had the power to inspire kids be asked to leave an institution that should be inspirational? Perhaps the students were asking too many questions. Maybe they were disrupting the pre-planned initiative to prepare them for lives where decisions are made for them. Certainly they were beginning to voice their disapproval of the sub-par education they are receiving. What are we telling our young people if we as adults do not listen to what they have to say?
I commend my former students whole-heartedly for the thoughtful tactics they utilized. I shame the administrators who did not see it fit to participate in social activism, other than to assume the role of the all-too-familiar unwavering moguls of power and control. I praise the inspirational classroom teachers social studies and otherwise who are taking the time to break the mold that characterizes much of the current school curriculum, by consciously preparing young people for active citizenship. I applaud the scholars of citizenship education as they research and contemplate the ways in which we can maximize student progress in this area. I stand near the beginning of my graduate studies and look forward to all that I will learn, and hope that I will be in a position to make my own contributions in the world of education.
I have gone over the recent events time and again in my mind and thought about the seemingly insurmountable tensions at Central High School. Unfailingly, I come up with the same conclusion: students deserve leaders of schools who will have the courage and humility to listen to them and talk with them. Todays school administrator should feel comfortable enough with young people that she can leave the fortified safety of the main office and engage in a dialogue with a group of students. Todays school administrator should not feel the need to criminalize students; she should recognize that they want a just and equitable education. It is not only the case that she should be able to do these things; indeed, she must do these things in order to properly educate our young people.
British Columbia Ministry of Education. (2005). Civic Studies 11(Final Draft: April 2005): Intergrated Resource Package 2005. Victoria: Ministry of Education, Province of British Columbia.