“Where’s the Justice in Social Justice?” notes on the community forum at Social Justice High School August 23, 2012

You say students first, but it’s really career first for you.”  When he came to the mic, the speaker at the forum named a deep suspicion many people in schools hold of the current wave of “education reform.”  It’s hard to reconcile a fixation on test scores aggregating with concern for the capacities, interests, and identities of students.

At the community forum at SoJo last night, hundreds of people gathered in the cafeteria to get answers and from the principal and CPS officials — and to seek out dialogue.  Why, at the Social Justice High School, a community-based school “born in the struggle” of community activism culminating in a 2001 hunger strike, had CPS staged an end-run around the democratic processes of the school, disrespecting its heritage and the wisdom of the community?  Why had the LSC-appointed principal been suddenly fired?  Why had the new principal had taken away AP classes and replaced them with remedial classes?  Why had she replaced teacher-developed curriculum with Pearson materials? Why were students of the Social Justice High School rebuked for standing up for their educational rights?

The principal and Chicago Public Schools administrators at the front of the room were in business clothes — everyone else, a combination of parents, students, and teachers, and small children, were in ordinary clothes.  The principal’s power point presentation went from a list of her credentials, and her acknowledgement that this is her first principalship, to line and bar graphs of students’ test scores.  She was careful to translate everything she said into Spanish.  About 15 minutes into the meeting, she took a deep breath and said, “now let’s move on to the elephant in the room: AP classes.”

She explained that one AP class had been restored, and that the principals in the other schools in Little Village Lawndale High School “have been kind enough to allow Social Justice students to take AP classes if they want.”  A student called out, “but when we go into other schools they call it ‘trespassing.’”

A parent asked, “Now you have reinstated one AP class, because students demanded it. What was your rationale for taking the AP classes away?”

This is the question the principal anticipated, and was prepared to answer with data which, she implied, proved that the low passing rate (12% of 178 students in AP classes) didn’t justify the continuation of AP classes: “I had to make decisions based on data.”  “But you’re using old data!” resounded throughout the room.  “They gave you bad data!”

A teacher provided current data, with more detail and higher rates of achievement in multiple areas, taken from the CPS website. “All the data on this school shows a positive trend.  If you have a positive trend it makes no sense to disrupt that.”

A parent asked, “What is your understanding of the values of this school? Your bosses are not the CPS officials over there; you answer to THIS community.  They are your bosses.  We can help you understand the history and the values of this school.  Why don’t you ask us?”

The principal had no answers, and she apparently had been forbidden to turn the mic over to the other CPS officials in the room who might have had answers.  As parents denounced the disrespect CPS showed the community by holding a forum without being able to provide answers, students gathered by the mic to speak.  One student asked all the parents who had come out in support of their children to stand.  With the scores of parents behind her, the student read a poem, “listen to the voice that’s inside,” which the principal had prevented her from presenting to the other students at school. “Why didn’t you let her read the poem?”  asked the crowd. “Because,” the principal answered, “she was using it as a political platform.”  “Where’s the justice in Social Justice?”  the students responded.  Parents, teachers, and community members took up the chant led by the students: “we were born in struggle; the struggle continues!”

“This meeting is over.”

(Click here for the Substance News story, with more details and analysis.)

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