Case on Socio-Economic Status

Case on Socio-economic Status

Student Protest

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Melody Yazzie and Javier Esposito, both seniors at North Shore High School, had attended Burlington County Public Schools (BCPS) since kindergarten. They went to elementary and middle school together, too, at the lowest-income schools in the district. During their years in the BCPS system, they had seen growing class sizes, a heightened focus on high-stakes testing, and the withering away of music and arts programs in their school, issues that did not seem to plague the wealthier schools in the district.

Several years earlier, as part of a project for civics class, Melody and Javier attempted to organize a peaceful protest against deteriorating conditions at North Shore. Their teacher, Ms. Terry, was a strong advocate for civic engagement. “It’s our duty,” she always said, “to change the things that need changing.” She ended almost every class with what she called a “Now What Popcorn.” Students brainstormed what they could do to create a better world based on what they were studying in class. In one of the final assignments of the school year, she asked her students to craft their brainstorms into a plan of action. “Pick one social issue and, in pairs, propose a plan for creating a better world.” Melody and Javier were not satisfied with proposing a plan. They wanted to experience protesting, but Ms. Terry quashed the idea. “I love your spirit,” She said, “but I don’t want you two getting into trouble.”

Now, two years later, news began circulating that BCPS intended to close North Shore. The district had been losing students for years and under state pressure decided to consolidate schools. North Shore, which had the lowest test scores among the district’s high schools, also had failed to make the requisite Annual Yearly Progress for the past three years It was first on the chopping block. Teachers received a memo insisting that they not speak to the students about the planned closure until the district knew how it would redistribute them into other schools. Still, there was a lot of chatter, as the situation was all over the local news. Many students were angry. They were sure this wouldn’t happen to a school full of wealthier students. Melody and Javier decided it was time to organize that protest they started planning a few years earlier. Their first step was to ask Ms. Terry for support. “I’m not supposed to talk about this,” she said, “but I suggest that you do a little research. Find out what sorts of protest students have done in other districts. Surround yourself with other people who feel like you do. Don’t try to do this on your own.”

They followed her advice. They invited a group of student leaders and friends to a meeting outside of school. “We have to do something!” Melody insisted.

“The question is, what should we do?” Javier asked.

The students decided that they would divide into groups, each taking on a specific task. Melody and Javier would learn as much as they could about student protests. Two of their peers would read all of the news stories they could find about school closures and how they affect local communities. Others would try to drum up interest among other students. They would meet again in a few days. When they did meet again, they decided they would organize a student walkout, encouraging every student who was upset about the school closure to peacefully leave the school at a predetermined time, they would march a couple of blocks, then line the boulevard, the busiest street in town, holding signs and chanting their displeasure. They would gather that weekend to make the signs. In the meantime, their most important task was to spread the word about the walkout and to remind everybody that it would be a peaceful protest. “Make sure to tell everyone, no cursing or violence,” Melody told the group.

“That’s right. We don’t want to give anybody a reason to blow us off,” Javier added.

They scheduled the walkout for the following Wednesday at 10 a.m. Some teachers urged the students not to continue with their plan, but many others were supportive, even if quietly so. A few teachers, including Ms. Terry, planned to join the walkout.

When Javier saw Melody the morning of the walkout he asked whether she’d noticed the extra police presence inside and outside of the building. “How could I miss it?” she answered. Ms. Terry noticed it, too, and it frightened her. She knew the students had their plan together. They would walk out peacefully; no cursing, no violence. But she worried that the police presence would elevate tensions. She knew they were there to scare the students into canceling the walkout, and she knew that was exactly the wrong approach to take with youth who experienced slight after slight in their educational lives. As she sat at her desk wondering what to do, Javier and Melody appeared at her classroom door.

Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice Education by Paul C. Gorski and Seema G. Pothini