High School Students Rising


“You’re going to be expelled,” an administrator at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Md., just twenty minutes away from the Washington, D.C., line, told the two boys sitting in her office on March 1, 2012.

“What?” Ricardo Fuentes, then a junior, asked, feigning ignorance.

“Project Xbox.”

Project Xbox was the code-name for the walkout that Fuentes had helped plan with El Cambio, an activist student group at Northwestern, for the National Day of Action for Education that day. Hours before the walkout he and his friend had been pulled into the office and confronted by the school’s administration. Administrators had pinpointed the two boys as key organizers — though only Fuentes was actually involved — and were determined to put a stop to it. They held the boys in the room for seven hours, offering to let them out only to visit lunch periods to tell people to stop the walkout. Fuentes, already resigned to his fate, refused to cooperate.

That afternoon, the sound of 400 students walking out of class — nearly a third of the school’s population — flooded Northwestern’s halls. Students were met at the door with teachers, administrators, security and police officers. They could see canine units waiting for them in the parking lot. Students turned back and started marching through the halls, searching for another exit, when they were blocked off at staircases. In the end, Fuentes and three of his friends were suspended for six days for helping to organize the walkout.

The walkout was not an aimless excuse to skip school, but a calculated response to a specific list of grievances. El Cambio’s communiqué, which it circulated in advance of the walkout, named seven grievances: disgusting bathroom conditions, enormous class sizes, teachers who had been refused pay raises three years in a row, the denial of promised funding for their band to go to nationals, cuts to funding for English-as-a-second-language programs, exploited and deported Filipino teachers, and the lack of a meaningful student role in the decision-making process. These grievances describe the conditions of many of Prince George’s County public schools. In a state that has been ranked number one in education for five consecutive years, Prince George’s County has only a single school that performs at or above the Maryland average, with almost all other schools falling well below it.

El Cambio found support among some teachers, who privately coached and guided the first-time organizers or gave their tacit approval. But others opposed the students’ activism altogether. One teacher went as far as to admonish Fuentes for El Cambio’s inclusion of teachers’ concerns among their grievances.

Though Northwestern’s walkout is exceptional in the region, it is not altogether unique. In the past year, for instance, there have been a series of walkouts in high schools in New York City, most notably the May 1, 2012, walkout of students at Paul Roebson High School in Brooklyn organized with Occupy Wall Street.

High school organizing presents a different kind of situation than college organizing. In public high schools, students are closely tied to their neighborhoods and their homes. They are not merely temporary residents, as many college students are, but members of their communities. Most of them have grown up in the area or lived there for a long time; many will continue to live there for most of their lives. They have a long-term commitment to the quality of their schools and neighborhoods. Meanwhile, high schoolers live under demanding, unyielding schedules determined by administrators who routinely ignore and marginalize students’ voices.

“I think that high schoolers always get forgotten,” Fuentes said. “They think that everything is easy for us, and it’s not.”

“It is authoritarian. We don’t feel like we have any power,” said Shane James, a senior at Northwestern who was suspended for helping to organize the walkout with El Cambio. “When you have no power over what dominates your life, you feel like you are powerless as a person. How are you supposed to learn to be an individual with ideas and a critical thinker if you don’t feel like you have control over your own ideas?”

Increasingly, public high schools are inundated with standardized tests and regimented expectations, from which any deviation is considered a chaotic interruption by the administration. In response to this kind of environment, in early January, teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle voted to refuse to administer the Measure of Academic Progress tests and waged a small war against their administration. Their boycott of the tests has inspired similar boycotts among teachers and students in high schools across the country, including in Portland and Rhode Island.

“We’re opting out because we want to send this greater message about not standardizing our education system,” Alexia Garcia, the student representative of Portland Public Schools student union. Her student union, which is sanctioned by the district, in conjunction with the Portland Student Union, a student-run organization in Portland high schools, launched an opt-out campaign just a couple weeks after the Seattle teachers did. In Portland, high school juniors must take the Oregon Assessment of Skills and Knowledge exam, which is used to assess Portland public high schools — and, starting next year, teachers. Based on this assessment, each school is given a grade, and it must test at least 95 percent of students in every demographic in order to get a passing grade. The goal of the opt-out is to give every school a failing grade by lack of participation, and thus compromise the whole process.

“We want to send the message that we’d like to see a more holistic approach and holistic evaluation,” Garcia said. “There is so much more to a student than how they perform on a test.”

Portland students have found support not only from their community but from their teachers. The teachers’ union can’t officially support the students or its members could risk losing their teaching licenses, but teachers have privately voiced their approval of student’s actions. Administrators, predictably, have not received the opt-out campaign so kindly. They’ve sent letters to parents stressing the importance of standardized testing. Administrators in Portland have done everything they can to end the student protest.

“We need a new mentality about how schools are supposed to function and how to educate kids,” James said. “You’re not going to educate kids by telling them to shut up and be quiet. You’re going to educate kids by letting them speak out and question authority — by letting them challenge things and really act on their interests and their passions.”

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