Thursday, December 23, 2010

Community Unites to Say No To School Closing

By Frank Neisser
Published Dec 22, 2010 11:32 PM

Hundreds of parents, students, teachers, school bus drivers and community activists overflowed a Boston School Committee meeting in the auditorium of English High School on Dec. 15, vociferously opposing a Boston School Department proposal to close 10 Boston schools and merge eight others. The committee was scheduled to vote on the proposal, and throughout the evening the crowd chanted “No vote!” and “Save our schools!” The outpouring was the climax of weeks of mobilizing by parents and teachers at the impacted schools since the department first announced the proposal. These forces packed School Committee meetings on Oct. 27, Nov. 3, Dec. 2, Dec. 8 and Dec. 15.

The vote was originally scheduled for Nov. 3, but the department withdrew the proposal and said they would revise it. When they presented the revised plan, it was clear they had not been listening to the voices of the outraged school communities, but instead to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, which represents Boston’s big banks and financial institutions. As the BMRB had demanded in the pages of the Boston Globe, all of the schools slated to be closed in the initial plan were still on the target list, with four additional schools slated for closure and others for merger.

The mobilizations in response to this assault were angry and powerful. On Dec. 13 students walked out of the Brook Farm Academy high school, 175 strong, and went downtown to protest at School Department headquarters and the mayor’s office. On Dec. 14, students of the Engineering School at Hyde Park High did the same. And on Dec. 15, parents and teachers from the East Zone Early Learning Center went to the mayor’s office to demand their school remain open. Throughout the mobilization, organizational support was provided by the Coalition for Equal Quality Education, which provided sound systems, placards, flyers and buses bringing school bus drivers from all four bus yards to the hearings and meetings. More than 50,000 leaflets were distributed. The coalition includes the Boston School Bus Drivers, Steelworkers Local 1111; the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts; Work for Quality, Fight for Equity; Mass. Citizens for Public Schools; and other groups, parents, students and community activists.

It was clear from the moving testimony at the hearings that the schools being closed were in the heart of communities of color; were unique in the system for serving English language learners and special needs students, who would not be able to get the necessary services elsewhere; and represented extraordinary educational communities where great academic gains were being made. These schools had long waiting lists of students wanting to attend them, and no empty seats. As teachers and students of the Agassiz Elementary School said, “Why would you close something that’s working?”

The real agenda was laid bare by Mayor Thomas Menino when, the day before the Dec. 15 vote, he gave a highly publicized speech to the Boston Chamber of Commerce that drew repeated standing ovations for his plans to attack the schools. In it, he campaigned for the school closings plan and every BMRB demand. He demanded drastic union-busting concessions from the Boston Teachers Union and announced plans to cut transportation and revamp the student assignment plan to return to racist neighborhood schools.

After decades of school closings in communities of color, this will cut off access to quality education options and spell a return to the segregated past. Martin Luther King led a march in the Boston streets in the 1960s, and in 1974, when racists attacked school buses carrying Black school children, 25,000 came out from Boston and around the country to support the Black community’s right to equal quality education by the means of their choice.

The mayor and the School Department have highlighted claims of empty seats in the school system. But the real agenda is the privatization of public education. The number of empty seats projected over the next few years is the same as the number of seats that are opening up in new charter schools, funded with taxpayer dollars at the expense of the public school system. This attack on public education is countrywide and is being pushed by the federal government, which demanded expansion of charter schools as a condition for “Race to the Top” federal education aid.

So it was no surprise that the School Committee — which is not elected but appointed by the mayor — voted 7-to-0 for the closings plan. But as Stevan Kirschbaum of the Boston School Bus Union said to the crowd at the meeting, the fight must continue at a new and higher level, including marches in the streets and occupations, if necessary, to save the targeted schools.
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