Rob Rooke is former Recording Secretary of Carpenters Local 713 and current President of Maxwell Park PTA. Rob blogs about parenting at raisinghavana.blogspot.com.
She pointed out of the car window every time we drove past it. Our five year-old talked Kindergarten all summer. For three years she’d walked to Maxwell Park Elementary School with her mom to drop off her older sister. Then she’d be off to pre-school. Now it was her turn to go to big school.
In August, Ilyana packed her backpack and began public school at the school that has served our neighborhood for 85 years. But she would not complete her elementary years at Maxwell Park Elementary School. In September, the school district announced that our school was on a list of five schools for possible closure.
District leaders came to our school and heard dozens of parents plead to keep our school open. Children, parents, grandparents and even one great grandparent spoke. Our school is genuinely rooted in our community. We not only have students that are siblings, we have cousins, and many students are the third and fourth generation to attend our school.
Like four of the five schools scheduled for closure, our student population majority is African American and 98% of our students are children of color. Our families are predominantly economically poor with 85% of kids eligible for free or subsidized lunch.
When school district board members came to our school it felt like an exercise in political expedience. Parents were angry, tearful, and focused. In contrast, the Board members appeared to be checking their watches, eager to get out of there. In the end, for all the arguments on the table, the issue was money. And when it’s money verses the people, money usually wins out. Especially when it’s money verses the group least likely to vote: the urban poor.
Many parents joined the 6-week fight between that meeting and the final school board decision. Other parents felt it was already a done deal and didn’t fight. They were used to being ignored and treated with disrespect by those in power. For those that joined the fight, we marched on the school board, packed hundreds into meetings, delivered a faux eviction notice on the steps of the District headquarters. Hundreds of children made their own picket signs. We spoke on radio stations and on TV. We were drawn into the Occupy movement, and they helped us bring a thousand people to the school board meeting under the banner of “Save our Schools”. Occupy helped us mobilize another 3,000 people to rally outside Lakeview School, one of the other closing schools. We finally organized a recall petition against Board members who voted to close our five schools, collecting many hundreds of signatures.
But the Board voted. It voted on the side of the status quo. On the side of bailing out banks and making the poor pay the tag. The five schools are slated to be closed at the end of the school year.
These closures will leave in their wake hundreds of angry parents and disappointed children. But our five-school community has been drawn together. Our own school’s parent community is closer than it has ever been. Our children have been educated in their right to fight and their right to organize. This lesson will last a lifetime.
When a school like Maxwell Park Elementary is closed, a thread of history is torn off. Memories are cut across and children are emotionally scarred, some more than others. When communities are split up, anger is nourished. But despite these cuts and bruises, we retain the hope that one day we will be on top. And with today’s rising tide against inequality, that day may well come. And when working people and the poor are on top, we will treat children like people, not numbers.