"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, February 13, 2012

Resistance begins with organizing: Social Justice Schools Conference Report Back

"How do we help students and teachers to stop blaming ourselves and each other and start working together to change the system?" — CEJ Student Activist

Labor/civil rights leader and author Bill Fletcher spoke to the attacks on the public sector, the need to project an alternative social vision, and the critical need for an organizing strategy.UCLA's Professor John Rogers discusses the relation of school struggles in contrast to increasing income inequality.We ended the conference with a "make the banks pay" rally in front of the notorious tax deadbeats Chase Bank.
Photos by Robert D. Skeels, see the entire set.

We're beginning to see scattered resistance to the corporate school privatization agenda of the Billionaire Boys Club, ALEC, and Arne Duncan. Across the country we are seeing parents stand with educators against the scourge of standardized tests. Parents Across America is a representative cross-section of many of those on the forefront of these battles. In New York we've seen powerful movements by entire communities and groups like the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM). GEM brought us the watershed The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. Seattle activists have opposed charter schools in the backyard of one of the most infamous charter supporters around. Oregon organizers passed Tax Fairness with their Measures 66 and 67. In Florida authentic parent groups opposed the charter trigger law imported by right-wing astroturf groups. In my neighborhood community members and parents from Micheltorena Street Elementary School and Elysian Heights Elementary School have begun fighting back against proposed colocations (read corporate charter occupations) imposed by the corporate Prop 39. These struggles, and many more, hint at a nascent organized resistance to the corporate privatization fatalism our rulers say we have no choice but to accept.

In order to overcome the vast resources of those pushing the neoliberal school privatization project, it's going to take increased organization, engagement, and political education of community members, educators, activists, parents, and students. The recent Social Justice Schools Conference held jointly by Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) and Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC) did just that. I want to reproduce this report I received from a CEJ member Rosa Jimenez in order to instill a sense of hope along with an understanding that this type of organizing takes work. I myself attended this amazing conference, and also assisted the organizing committee that put it on. It's no small work to organize these type of events, but over two days hundreds of people were reinvigorated, educated, inspired, and armed with new tools to continue the fight against the privatization of our public schools.

Social Justice Schools Conference Report Back

by Rosa Jimenez

Dear Educational Justice Community,

THANK YOU so much to those of you who were able to attend CEJ's and PEAC's Social Justice Schools Conference on February 10 and 11. Over 200 people attended this historic convening. This was more than a one-time event, it was a critical moment to regroup and redefine a new strategy for meaningful educational reform. The entire conference was volunteer-led and volunteer-driven. Registration, childcare, and lunch were all free. We hope that the event reminds all of us that we can continue to create the spaces that we need in order to move forward our work and our communities' rights!

Students, UTLA teachers, parents, community-members, and a few charter school teachers discussed the attacks our schools and communities face. We also focused on education policies, our vision for how we want schools to be, and specific pedagogical practices that support genuine student learning.

On Friday evening, civil rights and labor leader, Bill Fletcher challenged the audience to shift UTLA into a Social Justice Union — one that aligns itself with students, parents and community in the fight for real education justice. He described how the public sector is under attack and that unions must be committed to democracy, organizing and aggressively challenging ineffective education policy. Students, parents and teachers then engaged with each other about his speech, in small groups, and then posed questions to him about the connections between rebuilding the union movement in this country and the occupy movement, and how to get unions to be committed to issues beyond pay and other narrow trade union issues, but aligned more with what students and parents are fighting for such as economic and racial justice.

On Saturday morning, conference attendees heard panelists speak to a broad set of issues we must address as we build social justice schools. John Rogers, Director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Equity and Access, spoke about how neo-liberalism, education policy and the economy are structured so that there are fewer jobs, higher incarceration rates and less money going toward education than in decades past. He then offered up ideas on what unions and community orgs can do to put out a vision for real change and the need to organize around it. CEJ student leader Taylor Broom, CEJ parent leader Kahllid Al-Alim, and I then spoke about on the ground organizing we have done at our schools through CEJ, PEAC or independently to challenge the attacks on education and promote real change. Additionally, Taylor spoke about how schools should be focused on more than just test scores — that schools should also be focused on what students need — like providing college counselors, small class sizes, electives like Black and Chicano/Latino history and literature, and other electives that students want to take. Students asked critical questions like "How do we help students and teachers to stop blaming ourselves and each other and start working together to change the system?"

The conference then moved into workshops. Many of the workshops showcased working examples of how we can create the education that students, teachers, and parents want and need. There were workshops on developing critical literacy skills and a love for learning, community-based education programs that engage students in deep thinking and action, alternatives to the school-to-prison pipeline and the need to stop truancy ticketing, dual-language immersion programs and more. While this conversation has been happening separately for many years, this conference brought together union members and community members in an important step towards growing our ability to work together. As a 5th year teacher who has been RIF'd four years in a row and as a young Chicana and mother, I found the dialogue inspiring — it gives me hope in a time when the attacks keep growing. It reminded me that I am not alone in thinking that what we need is movement!

The sign at this CEJ student workshop said: 'Who are the 1% and what do they have to do with public education?'
Photo by Ronni Solmon. The sign at this CEJ student workshop said: 'Who are the 1% and what do they have to do with public education?'

While the adults were in workshops, students from ten different schools participated in a student-led section of the conference. This was a space for youth to discuss with each other the systemic problems of public school funding, how the 1% influence education policy (and what to do about it), racism and inequity, and what kind of changes students feel need to be made in schools so that schools better meet their needs.

The conference ended with a lively and theatrical action at Chase Bank, a few blocks away. It was a fun way to end the weekend and make connections between the underfunding of our schools, the 1%, and our willingness to take things into our own hands...

We were thrilled to have the Raza Ed Committee, Latino Caucus, Women's Progressive Caucus and United Valley Caucus endorse this conference and it was great to see rank and file and union leaders from other unions come out to support as well. We know that it will take all of us together (and many many more) to transform our own union and to work more systematically in the long-term to organize for educational justice with our communities.

These are crucial conversations in era where elite education "reformers" are the ones shaping and promoting educational policies for our schools. These reformers include Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and Richard Riordan who represent the 1% that the Occupy movement critiques. Their policies and strategies coming from the 1% for educational reform ignore the reality that our schools and our communities do not have what they need and deserve. This conference set us on a course to define our own educational reform needs together. We cannot and will not have elite business people who have their own interests in mind determining the future or our public schools which are supposed to be for everyone.

It would be great to hear from others who were in attendance about what you experienced and got out of the conference!

Thanks again to everyone for participating in this important and inspiring process of creating social justice schools.

Rosa Jimenez
UCLA-CS Social Studies Teacher
Coalition for Educational Justice Steering Committee Member
Progressive Educators for Action Member
Conference Coordinator

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