TCLA's School Accountability Report Card Series: Features: 5/6

On Bombs, School Reform, and Student Power

Jordan High School English teacher Sean Leys trains students in grass-roots organizing techniques in order to support them in creating student power.

Photo: Jordan High

The shell of the bomb launched into the air and landed on campus, skipping between buildings, tearing up chunks of asphalt. It nearly killed a passing teacher. If the explosion had happened during lunch, 20 minutes later, it would likely have killed tens of students. The school was evacuated. The explosion was barely mentioned on the news.

This school year, a bomb dropped on Jordan High School. The school’s buildings shook from the explosion of a World War II artillery shell being recycled at the neighboring scrap metal yard. The shell of the bomb launched into the air and landed on campus, skipping between buildings, tearing up chunks of asphalt. It nearly killed a passing teacher. If the explosion had happened during lunch, 20 minutes later, it would likely have killed tens of students. The school was evacuated. The explosion was barely mentioned on the news. After the school closed for a day, students returned. Many were overwhelmed with feelings of fear, anger, abandonment, and helplessness. Many masked these feelings with attitudes of cynicism and resignation. One teacher tried to organize an act of civil disobedience in front of the school, but after school police threatened away supportive students, he was arrested alone on the order of LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer. Students who wanted to show solidarity with the arrested teacher were intimidated into returning to their classes. Later that day, students were called into an assembly to voice their concerns. One courageous student took the microphone and demanded that someone take action. The other students watched in shock, certain that this student would be immediately punished. Instead, she was politely told that the administration would get back to her and then she was ignored. Never was the need to train students how to stand up for themselves more painfully obvious. Never was the school’s ambivalence to empowering students so plain.

But this is not just a story of one school; these plain truths are the same at most public schools. And this story does not just point to the need to empower students, but to the need to integrate students into educational reform efforts. Our public education system has never been made accountable to students, by students, and perhaps that is part of the problem. While most agree that students must be accountable to meet academic standards, it is just as important that our schools be accountable to their students as well. Any reform of the current accountability structure should include students not just as objects of scrutiny and standardized tests, but as acting subjects, critically and dynamically engaged with their schools. To do this, schools must engage students in participatory democratic processes. By engaging in a participatory democracy, students are empowered to develop standards for their schools. Through the struggle to achieve these standards, students will create successful, safer schools, master the skills they will need to work for liberation in their communities, and move towards self-liberation for themselves.

Never was the need to train students how to stand up for themselves more painfully obvious. Never was the school’s ambivalence to empowering students so plain.

A real, lived, participatory democracy is essential, not just for fairness, but for safety and even for survival. When we fight to create democracy, we are in essence fighting for our lives. For some of us (too many), it is the fight to live to see another sunrise; but for all of us, it is the fight to have full, meaningful lives. We need democracy to reach our potentials as human beings and to manage life’s inevitable conflicts. But the democracy we need is not the kind of voting-democracy that creates a tyranny of the majority, it is a democracy which inspires all of us to simultaneously discover and empower ourselves as individuals and as communities. It is a democracy that fosters the growth of individuals and provides safe, fair ways to resolve conflicts. As we chanted during the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles, "no justice, no peace," and later, "know justice, know peace." It is as true in our classrooms as it is in our streets.

On Creating Student Power at Jordan High

Mechanisms for a real student democracy are needed at every high school. To achieve this, it may help organizers at other campuses to look at our work at Jordan High. Jordan High is a campus of 2,000 students located in Watts, one of L.A.’s most challenged communities. Bounded in each of its four corners by a housing project, Watts has close to the lowest per capita income and highest unemployment rate in the nation. It is one of the centers of the international drug trade and has faced some of the deadliest gang wars of the last three generations. According to some community leaders, the community’s struggles with poverty and violence have left large numbers of Watts residents suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, constituting a very real mental health epidemic. When I’ve asked roomfuls of students to raise their hands if a family member is currently in jail, nearly every student does. Not unexpectedly, these struggles bleed into the school. At the beginning of every school year, large numbers of students affiliated with Blood gangs transfer from Jordan (which is considered a Crip school) to Locke or Centennial (both considered Blood schools). Out of the approximately 1,000 freshmen we take in every year, we graduate less than 250 seniors. Every piece of assessment data we get at Jordan High, from standardized test scores to School Accountability Report Cards to student surveys says the same thing: our school and our students are failures. And not just failures, we are some of the absolute worst failures in the state. Despite all this, when I first visited Jordan, what struck me were not the challenges students face but students’ maturity and casual intelligence; so much so, that Jordan immediately became my first choice of schools at which to teach. So what, I have been asking myself ever since, are the assessments of these young people missing?

According to some community leaders, the community’s struggles with poverty and violence have left large numbers of Watts residents suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, constituting a very real mental health epidemic.

It has taken me two years to put this search for our student’s strengths into words, and I did not find them at school but in the work of local gang leaders. W.A.T.T.S., they say, stands for "We Are Taught to Survive." These gang leaders, the same ones who brokered the historic 1992 peace treaty between the local Blood and Crip sets, see themselves not as failures but as national leaders. In the words of Aqeela Sherrills, truce negotiator and director of the Community Self-Determination Institute, "Watts is the catalyst for the next major peace movement in this country." It should not surprise us, if we think of democracy as the struggle for liberation, that we should look to the youth of Watts for leadership.

But how do we create mechanisms to foster real democracy in schools? How do we help students articulate the truths they live but cannot always express? How do we clear a path for these students to take collective action once they have articulated these truths? This is not a simple task or one that can be accomplished quickly, especially considering how our students have had every attempt to assert themselves systematically repressed since the morning bell rang on their first day of school. In LAUSD, there have been numerable examples of powerful moments of resistance and empowerment: the East L.A. Blowouts in the late 60’s, the protests against the Gulf Wars, walkouts aimed at stopping Propositions 187, 209, and 21, to name a few. None of these moments, however, have resulted in organizations representative of whole student bodies or sustainable over years. How do we go beyond limited, campaign oriented projects to long term organizing while remaining focused on measurable, winnable goals?

As they say in the labor movement, “don’t mourn, organize!” Ultimately, real democracy needs to be integrated into every aspect of the school, from curriculum to administration, but we begin by organizing students, putting our trust in them, and then giving them the power to answer these questions for themselves. Critical pedagogy teaches us that education is inseparable from real democracy and we cannot fail to recognize young people’s thirst for this kind of education. From English classes to physics, our classes should be helping students discover themselves and become empowered to change themselves and their worlds. However, we also need to create opportunities for the entire student body to act democratically as a collective. To do that, a group of teachers, community partners, and school reform advocates have begun a multi-year plan to organize students at Jordan High.

Every piece of assessment data we get at Jordan High... says the same thing: our school and our students are failures. And not just failures, we are some of the absolute worst failures in the state. Despite all this, when I first visited Jordan, what struck me were not the challenges students face but students’ maturity and casual intelligence; so much so, that Jordan immediately became my first choice of schools at which to teach. So what, I have been asking myself ever since, are the assessments of these young people missing?

First Steps

At Jordan, we have been working to create a sustainable, student led, non-hierarchical, social justice focused organization that will simultaneously develop student’s leadership skills, advocate for their interests, and mobilize them to collective action. Our model is not the student government / popularity contest model most of us are familiar with. Our project works in direct opposition to representational democracies in which a group of student elites represent the student body in name, while are in practice expected to carry out school administrators’ wishes. While this traditional student government model replicates existing hierarchical social institutions, and by extension, the larger hierarchical social system of inequality, we are patterning our work from grassroots organizing models, neighborhood gangs, and the lived social networks of students in order to challenge social systems of inequality. The goal is to assemble a diverse cross section of the student body, train them in anti-oppression practices, consensus decision making, and grass-roots organizing techniques, and then give them the task of organizing within their personal social networks. Our plan is as follows:

I. This year – train a cadre of students to lay the foundation for future organizing.

A. Begin with a diverse class of 9th through 11th graders.
B. Train them in anti-oppression organizing.
C. Have them assemble a larger organizing committee made from a representative cross-section of the student body and begin training this organizing committee.

II. Next year – Organize the student body
A. Continue the training of the organizing committee, with intensive training for a core group.
B. Challenge the organizing committee to create an action plan for the year.
C. Use the action plan to begin outreaching and organizing the entire student body.

In the words of Aqeela Sherrills, truce negotiator and director of the Community Self-Determination Institute, "Watts is the catalyst for the next major peace movement in this country." It should not surprise us, if we think of democracy as the struggle for liberation, that we should look to the youth of Watts for leadership.

While executing this plan, we have had to be conscious of maintaining anti-oppressive practices in our organizing, be cautious of the potential of students to use their new found power to resist schooling rather than revolutionize it, and stay focused on the ultimate goal of autonomy for the students.

From the beginning, this project has been developed with an explicit social justice perspective integrated into all aspects. To work, a participatory student democracy must be anti-oppressive; that is, dedicated to challenging racism, sexism, heterosexism, ablism, classism, religious intolerance, and all forms of discrimination practiced by individuals or institutions. It must be anti-oppressive not just in its critique of existing institutions, but must also be self-critiquing and practice anti-oppression in its own actions. It must be committed to validating student’s voices and lived experiences. It must never waver from the belief that students are capable of creating radical, positive change when their voices and experiences are validated. A participatory student democracy must recognize the intrinsic value of every student and the leadership potential of every student. And it must respect the student’s existing social networks and self-selected leadership, even if those leaders are considered trouble-makers, gangbangers, or failures by campus adults. But the most difficult aspect of implementing this is giving students the autonomy to establish their own goals and the power to take collective action to realize these goals. Giving students autonomy is difficult in an educational climate that has rarely, if ever, fostered their ability to think critically about their situations. Giving students power to take collective action is difficult because it challenges the existing institution’s power, including the power of teachers, administrators, and even adult organizers.

Therefore, before students can be given this power, they must be prepared. Most students have responded to the repressive nature of schools by developing elaborate resistance techniques. If students are empowered without gaining the tools to critically analyze their situation, they run the risk of using that power to strengthen their resistance to school instead of transforming their schools. Students must be trained in what a social justice philosophy is, how to locate themselves within existing power structures, what possibilities for liberation exist, and what techniques have been historically successful. To do this at Jordan, we have had the benefit of local community activists, school reform activists, and especially the Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations (LDIR) Program. LDIR is an off-campus organization whose mission is to “empower, mobilize, and equip multiethnic, multicultural communities and schools with awareness, skills, and the action steps necessary to foster positive intergroup relations.” LDIR offers a school based curriculum in anti-oppressive organizing and has sponsored an elective class at Jordan High. This class became the first step of our organizing project: to create the cadre of students who will lay the foundation for a successful school-wide organizing campaign. The LDIR school based curriculum begins by challenging students to simultaneously challenge their own internalized prejudices and analyze systemic racism and inequality. It then takes students through a series of activities designed to educate students about conflict management techniques, communication skills, and leadership development. By the end of the LDIR class, students are able to begin critically analyzing their schools and thinking strategically about how to create change.

Giving students autonomy is difficult in an educational climate that has rarely, if ever, fostered their ability to think critically about their situations. Giving students power to take collective action is difficult because it challenges the existing institution’s power, including the power of teachers, administrators, and even adult organizers.

While working our way through this curriculum, students were given the task of creating a representative cross-section of the student body to lead next year’s organizing campaign and to begin preparing them for that role. To do that, we divided the campus into six sections. Groups of students went out during lunch and observed their fellow students and kept notes on the demographics of social groupings and cliques. They compiled these notes into charts describing the number, ethnicity, gender, and age of these groups along with descriptions or labels. After a conversation about stereotyping, students were allowed to critically label the students in ways they thought were meaningful according to existing social realities. At Jordan we had labels like Soccer Players, Bloods, Crips, Rockers, Loners, Paisas, Skaters, etc. Next, students were asked to engage these social groups in a conversation about whether or not they felt their voice as students was important to the school. Each group was asked if one of their friends was to speak for them, who would they want it to be? From this information, we compiled a list of 100 students who best represented the diversity of Jordan High.

For the next step, preparing the students on this list to become student activists, we are planning a day long student run conference off campus. At this conference we will explain what we are trying to do and will recruit these students to be a part of the organizing campaign next year. A core of these students will be in next years LDIR class and the rest will be pulled out of their regular classes for meetings every other week. The conference’s workshops will focus on challenging prejudice, conflict management, communication, and organizing. Each one of these workshops is being planned and led by small groups of students, each working with a mentor from off campus. Irene Muro from CHIRLA/LDIR is working with the challenging prejudice workgroup, Aqeela Sherrills from the CSDI is working with the conflict management workgroup, and Jeff Duncan-Andrade from UCLA-IDEA is working with the organizing workgroup. This will give students an introduction to the organizing project and a taste of the type of training they can expect.

Conclusion

I hope that this work will lay the foundation for a transformation in the political climate of Jordan High, put students in activist positions at their school and within larger school reform projects, and will serve as a model for other schools. I hope that the bomb that exploded at Jordan High will have begun an explosion of student organizing. We should, however, have no illusions about the resistance this kind of work is likely to face. Historically, when students have risen up, their struggle has been met with hostility on the part of the school system’s institutionalized power structure and this hostility has proved a significant obstacle to turning these moments into sustainable movements. Similar, recent attempts to organize at neighboring Locke High School resulted in the firing of a teacher and the harassment and expulsion of student organizers. While the climate at Jordan is significantly less hostile, the apparent will of the school district and many campus adults to retain power remains the same. But if we are to ever create meaningful school reform, it must be done with the students, not to the students. Students must be empowered to become agents of change. We will never otherwise have their help in planning school reform, their participation in creating real School Accountability Report Cards, or any other of the myriad of projects that might improve our troubled education system.

^tcla

On the TCLA Peace Page, also check out "The War Is Not Over" by Sean Leys.

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