Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
May 12-19, 2012
The walkout of students from Western International High School is continuing to reverberate through the city. Emergency Financial Manger (EFM) Roy Roberts has vigorously denied charges this week that he intends to disband the elected school board because some members supported the walk out. The spokesman for the EFM, Steve Wasko said, “Mr. Roberts continues to state that for anyone who desires what he’s here to accomplish, that is, improved educational conditions to prepare Detroit’s students for 21st-century college and career-readiness, he needs all those similarly focused at the table.”
This seat at the table, however, requires sharing a very narrow, destructive view of education. In spite of strong public outcry, Roy Roberts and his appointed administrative team are continuing their heavy-handed response to students who exercised their democratic rights. The walk out by hundreds of students at Southwestern and Western International high schools protesting the decision to close Southwestern high school was met with force. Students were threatened with criminal prosecution. Cell phones were taken. Student leaders were suspended and then told they had to sign contracts pledging to never violate school policies again upon their return to classes.
Underlying this reaction is a deep fear of the power of public protest. The EFM gang labeled the march “irresponsible” and pledged swift punishment. Steve Wasko said, “DPS and the school will ensure that the student code of conduct is enforced.”
Had Roy Roberts bothered to talk to the students, to read their statements or visit their Facebook postings, it would have been immediately clear that these students are exactly the kinds of people we want and need to make our city better. First, students were not only walking out for themselves, but for others. Second, as they are concerned about quality education. They said, “We were also fighting for quality education for us at Western, and at ALL DPS schools. We do not understand why we are being punished with a loss of educational opportunity when that is exactly what we were fighting for.”
Finally, students showed imagination, initiative and an understanding of history by responding to the suspensions by organizing a Freedom School with classes about the history of Southwest Detroit, Civil Rights, Codes of Conduct, expressive arts, social justice, and media. In essence these students see themselves as engaged, responsible citizens, demanding and creating new kinds of education.
The EFM sees them as troublemakers, needing to be controlled and punished. This view is how we know the EFM will ultimately fail in his mission to “prepare students for the 21st century.”
We are living at a time when creativity, imagination, courage and vision are required from all of us. These attributes terrify the ruling elites who are imposing an educational system of control, punishment, and persistent meaningless testing.
In contrast to the EFM view of public education is that of Professor Gregory Smith of Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Education. Professor Smith visited the Boggs Center to talk about place-based education this week. He has written six books demonstrating how place based education offers a way to create meaningful educational experiences by basing curriculum on local knowledge and issues. In his latest book, Place and Community-based Education in Schools, with David Sobel, he chronicles imaginative educational practices throughout the country.
Smith and Sobel write: “By making space for local knowledge and issues, it diminishes the boundary between the classroom and students’ lives in their homes and neighborhoods. When teachers involve students in projects that address genuine community concerns, students come to see themselves as knowledge producers and actors. Young people who might otherwise be disengaged from learning become willing to invest themselves in their own education, the life of their community, and the wise stewardship of local resources.”
Through the walkout and creation of Freedom Schools students are reimagining a stronger educational system for everyone.