Where the Rubber Hits the Road: Allentown Student Walkout Now Just Days Away

Image credit: United Youth Party, "i CARE" video, screen capture.

Since the beginning of September I have been reporting on students in the Allentown School District who are planning to walk out of classes on Monday, September 28th unless their demands are met by the school board this Thursday. The ASD School Board will meet at 7:30 in the District’s Administration Center. Organizers of the walkout are planning a rally at 6pm ahead of the meeting to demonstrate the number of students and community members demanding change in the district. As I reported last week, the walkout organizers are demanding the resignation of the ASD Superintendent Russ Mayo; a voting student representative on the School Board; and, a summer jobs program to prepare students for the workforce.

As the walkout date grows near, organizers are facing the expected increased scrutiny about their claims, their strategy, and their motivations. According to several sources in Allentown familiar with the proposed walkout, there has been a lot of talk in the community – pro and con – and sometimes the discussions can be heated.

This past Monday, I was on the Rick Smith Show talking about some of these tensions and what this campaign could grow into if it includes more members of the community and articulates a more comprehensive, progressive agenda that goes beyond its initial demands for personnel change and becomes a civil and economic rights struggle.

Some of these tensions erupted early in response to a video released by one of the main organizing groups, United Youth Party in Allentown, called “This is My School.” The first minute and fifty seconds of the video consisted of student organizers discussing some of their frustrations with their experience as students. It was the last few seconds of the video that led to some heated exchanges on Facebook. In the last ten seconds an off camera voice asks students if they feel the teachers care about them. There is a cut and then the students answer together: “no.” The question was a little surprising given that the the bulk of the video focused on the district, not teachers.

That last ten seconds of the video led to a string of comments from teachers and students such as:

  • “It is completely unfair to say that teachers in the ASD don’t care about their students. As a student who has been in the ASD his entire academic career, I can say with firm confidence that I would not be the student I am today without the teachers who believed in me and in my dreams – teachers from the Allentown School District.”
  • “I have no issue with children working to make change. I take tremendous issue with anyone, current student or former grad, stating that teachers don’t care about them. Trust me, we don’t do it for the money! We don’t stay up late writing recommendation letters, worrying about struggling students, or effective lessons because we don’t care.”
  • I listen to my kids. I hear the words they don’t say, because they are too scared to say them. I see them. I see through their eyes. I speak to them. I love them. I pray for them. I have stayed up worrying about them. I have cried for them and with them. I know that some of my students decide to fail so they can go to summer school so they can get a meal. I listened to them when they felt violated and neglected by others. I believe in their ability to move mountains. I believe in their ability to make changes! Because Allentown needs serious changes, but maybe I am concerned with how they want to create that change.”

There were many more in the same vein. Others turned on parents and blamed “student failure” on poor parenting. I reached out to the student organizer who posted the United Youth Party video – and who took the brunt of the criticism for it – and asked her about the comments and how she saw the purpose of the video. She said,

The video was a wake up call to teachers and targeted at the school district. The teachers want the students to care about them and want the district to care about the teachers.

The students do not want this to be a personal attack on anyone, they know many teachers try. But all in all the students don’t feel cared for.

And that seems to be the essence of what I keep on hearing: the students and former students who are organizing this walkout do not feel cared for in their schools; they do not feel they are learning at the level they should be; and, they feel they are getting the short end of the stick from all the institutions that are supposed to be giving them a shot. All of this makes sense to me. And, frankly, the decision by some students and former students to try to draw a line in the sand and say “enough is enough!,” is going to be a messy process, especially in the absence of a long history of political activism and organization at the grassroots level.

Check out Rick Smith’s exclusive interviews with some of the organizers of the walkout HERE, HEREHERE, and HERE

I also get the frustration of teachers in the district. Because of the draconian cuts by our former Governor, Tom Corbett; decades of a gradual defunding of our public schools; and, a fetish for privatizing and charterizing public schools in urban centers, Allentown School District has seen over 380 educational professionals cut since 2011. What’s the concrete effect of that? It’s simple: larger classes, fewer remedial and tutoring services, over-worked teachers, and cuts in arts, music, and extra-curriculars that have a proven track record of helping keep students in school and learning at a higher level.

So, teachers feel they’ve been punched in the gut and are desperately trying to do the best that they can with very little. They feel unappreciated and under attack. And, frankly, they are. At the same time, students are under attack (by the same people attacking teachers, by the way). They are being subject to the exploding regime of corporate, high-stakes testing that seeks to close schools and cut resources on the backs of students. And because of the high-stakes nature of these tests, more and more of the school year consists of drilling students to perform for the tests. In practical terms, that means that students – especially students in cash-strapped districts – are denied the more meaningful aspects of education that matter to students, teachers, and the community.

Add to that the fact that the demographics of teachers and staff in the district is way out of sync with the demographics of students and you have yet another complicating factor that is fraught with the potential for conflict unless addressed directly, consciously, and vigorously. Take for example a 2013 report from the Allentown-based Campaign for Change. Here’s a breakdown of the race and ethnicity of the ASD personnel contained in the report:

Source: Campaign for Change, " Education, Economics, Engagement Preliminary Education and Employment Analysis," 2013.
Source: Campaign for Change, “Education, Economics, Engagement Preliminary Education and Employment Analysis,” 2013.

Compare that with the breakdown of the race and ethnicity of the students:

CfC Graph 2
Source: Campaign for Change, “Education, Economics, Engagement Preliminary Education and Employment Analysis,” 2013.

Add to that the report’s findings that there is a racial and ethnic disparity when it comes to student achievement. Take, for example, 11th grade reading achievement:

CfC Graph 3
Source: Campaign for Change, “Education, Economics, Engagement Preliminary Education and Employment Analysis,” 2013.

Similar results were found when it came to math achievement, dropout rates, time to graduation, and numbers of “misconduct offenders.” So, not only do you have a school district under economic pressures, but you also have a growing demographic and cultural disjuncture between educational professionals and students. That’s a recipe for disaster unless you have a proactive, progressive school administration and school board and an active, politicized community. In the absence of both or either of these, there are going to be a whole lot of people who are feeling like they are being written off and left to sink or swim. Again, I get that.

But all that is context. That doesn’t tell us what happens next. There’s been a lot of talk about this walkout. But now, the rubber is about to hit the road and people in Allentown are going to have to decide how they are going to respond.

And anyone who has ever done activist organizing knows that once students decide to walk out of classes – if that indeed happens come Monday morning – our corporate media will focus on divisions and conflicts. There will be lots of people who will have lots to say about what the organizers should have done or what is an appropriate or inappropriate form of protest. And you can count on the fact that all the discourse around #BlackLivesMatter – the good, the bad, and the ugly – will be on full display. We can count on that. And we should know these things and expect these things.

My take on the organizing going on in Allentown is pretty simple: like any uprising or significant political action, there is an opportunity to build, strengthen, and deepen a political movement that may be able to affect some significant change. Democracy is messy, folks. And if we give have a crap about democracy, about justice, about equity – well, we have to get our hands dirty. There is no pure space of political action. The question is what do we have an opportunity to build, what skills and experience can we bring to the table, and how can we take one more step or a leap toward a better Allentown, a better Pennsylvania?


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