Defend and Transform: The Bull City’s Struggle to Save Our Schools and Our Communities
Between September 7 and October 13 of this year, school communities and districts around the state were thrown into chaos. The state government, through legislation sponsored by wealthy school privatizers, targeted 48 “low-performing” schools for takeover by the so-called Innovative School District (ISD). By mid-October, they told us, two schools would be chosen for removal from local control and handed over to the privately-controlled ISD. Durham had five schools on the list, and all had at least 83% of their students living in poverty. The stats for the other schools across the state are similar.
On September 22, the list was narrowed to six schools, including Glenn and Lakewood Elementary Schools in Durham (the others in Rocky Mount/Nash, Northampton, and Robeson school districts). Over the next three weeks, thousands of people around the state sprung into action to stop the takeovers. Community meetings and organizing efforts in all four districts revealed not only confusion and alarm at the state’s direct effort to privatize our schools, but anger and resistance. On October 13, the ISD Superintendent, Dr. Eric Hall, announced that only Robeson County’s Southside Ashpole Elementary School would be recommended.
This was a win. It was a defensive win, and one marred by the potential loss of Southside Ashpole (there is still hope), but a win nonetheless. As the Durham local (Durham Association of Educators) of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), we are writing this article to share the lessons of this victory and prepare ourselves to get off of our heels for the fight that our students deserve.
Defend and Transform
First, it is important to understand that there is an internationally-financed-and-organized effort to privatize public schools. Wealthy backers with no connections to public schools have bought their way into the center of the debate, and the politicians they sponsor have spent several decades:
- Limiting funding and support for public schools, creating high turnover among educational professionals and handicapping those who can survive
- Cutting resources (food, housing, health care, higher-paying union jobs) that our students’ families depend on while transferring money to the wealthy through massive tax cuts
- Calling for “more accountability” through profit-generating standardized tests and slapping a D or F grade on them when our schools prove unable to overcome the weight of budget cuts, racism, and persistent poverty in our communities
- Opening up options for “choice” like private school vouchers and charter schools to lure parents away from public schools and towards less accountability and more openings for profit
They aim to make money, and they are willing to tear apart our communities to get it. The privatizers have all of the power in the North Carolina General Assembly, and have spent the last 5-10 years doing everything in their power to dismantle our public schools. It is our duty to defend our schools and our young people from the risks, shortcuts, and exploitative practices that inevitably follow privatization.
Simultaneously, we must acknowledge that public schools have historically privileged white, wealthy, and able-bodied students while leaving students of color, poor students, and students with disabilities behind. In this way, they are a mirror of the communities that surround them. If we don’t speak to, and work to transform, the shortcomings that come from unexplored racism and class biases, poor leadership, lack of ongoing training and support, lack of safety and affirmation for LGBTQ students, and an inability to consistently meet the needs of students with disabilities or English Language Learners, then we are fighting for something that’s not worth fighting for. And we are handing our communities over to the privatizers, who are very willing to point out these shortcomings (without acknowledging the role that their policies have played in creating them).
If we fight to both defend AND transform, we can win. Here’s how…
How We Won
At DAE, we teach that power is the ability to accomplish something despite opposition. In this fight, the privatizers were holding all of the cards. They had passed the law in the General Assembly that created the ISD. They had hired a Superintendent who is a well-liked and articulate spokesperson. The state Board of Education had its timeline set. It didn’t seem like there was much that we could do.
Power, however, is relative, and comes in the following forms:
- Organized money
- The ability to move your ideas in the mainstream
- Organized people
Here, we didn’t have much money or the ability to control what happened in the press. What we did have, however, was each other and the strength of our story. We gathered to make a plan to move our people.
The effort began two days after the final list was announced, in a Lakewood parent’s living room with other parents, DAE leaders, community supporters, and the administration from one of the two targeted schools. We discussed our concerns, shared what information we had, figured out who was making decisions and how we could impact them, and made a plan to hold a press conference and mass meeting at the school. Now it was time to act. Over the next week and a half, parents and staff made phone calls home, passed out flyers in the car line as students were being dropped off or picked up, and put stickers with information (in English and Spanish) on the clothes of the students as they got on the bus. We created provocative graphics and used social media to spread the word through parent, educator, and community networks. We launched a petition/email campaign that targeted Dr. Hall. People called everyone that they could think of to get involved. We even got some national attention. We hustled hard.
On the day of the event, over 75 people showed up for the press conference, and over 250 crammed into the school’s media center for the meeting that followed. The press conference was powerful and served to ground and motivate us all. Inside, the meeting began with relationship/community building and an exercise that highlighted what we love about our schools. From there, we learned about the ISD and its role in the privatization of schools. We ended with small group breakouts to focus on next steps. Ultimately, everyone walked out with marching orders to sign and share the online petition (over 500 emails had already been sent to Dr. Hall) and make calls to his office the next day.
On top of the learning and action components of the meeting, the night represented the infinite potential of organized school communities. The meeting, conducted in 3 languages with participants from all over the world, was mostly filled with the working class, African-American and Latino parents that send their children to Lakewood. These parents were confused about the ISD and angry about the threats to their child’s community. They were ready to fight. They were joined by elected officials from 4 different bodies, union teachers from all over the district, supportive neighbors and community members, and the staff and leadership of both targeted schools. We shared food, stories, solutions, and love. We had everything that we needed.
Immediately, our work began to bear fruit. Eric Hall’s office voicemail was full by noon the next day, so we started calling the Department of Public Instruction’s switchboard. Within a week, over 1700 people had signed our petition and sent an email to his office. All of the press coverage was favorable and continued throughout the next two weeks. Our story was more compelling, and the privatizers had no answers for students, parents, educators, and community supporters standing together.
Lakewood came off the list of schools in danger, and the whole team doubled down on Glenn.
Glenn parents, staff, and supporters went through many of the same steps, only this time we added hundreds of conversations through community canvasses on people’s doors and in front of the local Wal-Mart. For the second time in a week, we had a mass meeting of over 200 people that highlighted all that is working in our schools and helped people take action to stop the takeover. Again, it was mostly the working class Black and Brown parents whose children attend the school, and the crowd was diverse and powerful. We asked people to keep signing the online email petition, but we switched tactics to calling Dr. Hall’s cell phone the next few days. Later in the week, a team of parents drove to his office to demand a meeting. He was not there so they left the petitions and their stories with the news.
The next afternoon, Glenn was off the list.
While there were undoubtedly a variety of factors that led to this victory, the volume and clarity of our community’s rejection of the ISD not only made it clear that Durham would not tolerate this takeover, but lent strength to the ISD opposition in Rocky Mount, Northampton County, and Robeson County. Our people had the power that we needed. We just needed to find one another, develop a strategy, and take action.
We never once disputed the state’s claim that these were struggling schools. They are. Because of racial segregation and poor perceptions generated by the privatizers, both schools have higher concentrations of students struggling through the instability and trauma of poverty and racism than most schools in the state. This doesn’t mean that Lakewood and Glenn students can’t learn. They can learn as much as anyone else, but we know that they need, and deserve, more resources if they are to “catch up” with peers who begin school far ahead of them already. They deserve small class sizes. They deserve a robust and culturally-sustaining curriculum that includes time for world languages, art, music, PE, and play. They deserve healthy food and a school nurse every day. They deserve well-trained and well-equipped educators and leaders. They deserve the best that we have to offer. They are our children and our future.
We cannot overcome these challenges without more resources from the state. We have to fight for them. There is no way of getting around it.
We also have to fight to transform our schools from the bottom up, and we have tremendous opportunities right now. We can, and must, engage our parent communities as full partners. So often, educators and school leaders decry the lack of participation from parents and communities. The struggles at Lakewood and Glenn have demonstrated that parents care, and will show up for their kids, but that an email/phone call home won’t be enough. We need to be active. We need to realize that many parents, especially working class/poor parents and parents of color, don’t feel welcomed or valued in our schools. We can change that. We can trust parents, as they trust us, to be full partners in the education of their children.
We need to realize that educators, just like everyone in our society, need support in understanding the ways that we misperceive or underestimate students of color, poor students, and students with disabilities. We need more tools, like Village of Wisdom’s Protect Black Genius, for educators and parents to work together to identify and maximize the potential and skills that all of our students are bringing to the table. We have to share best practices and understand our own expertise. We must create collaborative cultures that empower educators, as leaders, to work with students, parents, and community supporters to solve problems collectively.
Finally, we have to realize that our students’ lives don’t stop at the classroom doors. Our schools cannot end poverty and racism. Safe and affordable housing will. Decent paying jobs will. Access to health care and transportation will. Investment in community programs instead of prisons, police, and the military will. The privatizers ask us to be appalled at the high percentages of students of color that are coming up short on standardized tests. We are.
But we are more appalled that 25% of the children in this state live in poverty, and over 90% of the students at Glenn and Lakewood meet that criteria. This is the crisis. The test scores are a symptom. Schools play an important role, but we will not see the kind of transformation that our schools need until we transform the communities around them. And we will not transform anything without action.
Let’s Get Off Of Our Heels
Unless we get lucky winning the lotto or inherit a news agency, our power is going to continue to come from our ability to mobilize our people to call, email, show up, pressure, march, vote, etc. We are the source of our strength, and organizing, not magic, will bring us together.
So here’s what we have to do:
- Join DAE/NCAE/NEA and your school’s PTA. Use these organizations to harness the skills and energy of individuals in strategic and effective ways. We can help. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get connected.
- WEAR RED EVERY WEDNESDAY, gather with your community (of co-workers, parents, etc.), take a photo, and post it to the DAE Facebook group page. It is a quick and easy way to practice and test your organizing skills. If you can get people to gather every week and take even a small action together, you have a better shot at stopping the privatizers or transforming your school. Start small. Think of this as a disaster preparedness drill. Again, email email@example.com for more information.
- Fill out this short survey (only if you live in Durham please) and help DAE create a forward-thinking program to shape this Spring’s School Board elections and local budget process. We have clear opportunities to make an impact, but only if thousands of people participate, and only if we get off of our heels and fight for a program that is ours.
We can win. We have to win. Our kids are counting on us.