Posts in: ED235

Lessons from Mitchell High School

During every period of the Language Arts class we observed at Mitchell High School last Friday, the school’s negative reputation in the Colorado Springs community was brought up as a topic of discussion– both by the teacher, Rob Lessig, and the students themselves. Mitchell’s low test scores mean that the state has them on watch, and a video of a student fight recently received a disproportionate amount of local media attention. I bring up these negative narratives not to give them any more time and space than they have already occupied in the Colorado Springs discourse around education, but to make explicit the message that students and teachers at Mitchell High School constantly receive about themselves: that they are failing. But, as M.R Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell point out in their book The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for moving from theory to practice in urban schools (which, by the way, has been a veritable bible of teaching practices for social justice transformation that I am cursing myself for renting from the bookstore instead of buying), urban schools fail in a system that is set up for their failure. Though Colorado Springs is not exactly a metropolis, we discussed in class how “urban” is often used as a whispered stand-in to describe any school, like Mitchell, that has a high population of students of color and students from low-income households. Duncan-Andrade and Morrell stress the urgent need to reform the “Politics and Economics of Failure” on the broad level of policy; in short, they argue that our education system is constructed so that some schools must fail, that resources are allocated inequitably to schools deemed failing, and that practices which measure failure and police students’ behavior and “intellect” such as standardized testing and the school-to-prison pipeline are biased against students of color. But they acknowledge that upper-level change won’t happen for a while, and that on the ground, right now, urban schools, teachers, and students themselves are involved in actively constructing counter-narratives to the grand narratives told about them by an inherently inequitable system.

This work of creating counter-narratives was exactly what we saw in action at Mitchell High School. We got the opportunity to participate for one day in a project led by CC student Jubilee Hernandez, where students created art pieces representing various forms of oppression that were auctioned off that night at Cornerstone Arts Center to benefit a scholarship (previously set up by a group of students at Mitchell) for DACA students. The juniors and seniors in the class were practicing sharing their artist statements, which we were lucky enough to get to hear. Students created pieces representing mental health issues, socioeconomic disparities, the treatment of undocumented immigrants, the sexism of their school dress codes, the impacts of labeling and judgement, and more, while many directly took on the education system which they felt has served them inequitably. They were angry at the fact that standardized testing practices are racist and inaccurate measures of anything, much less intelligence, and that testing was narrowing their school’s curriculum and impeding their creativity and self expression. They were proud to be students at Mitchell, despite their frustration with their school’s lack of resources, and knew that the grand narratives told about them were wrong.

The art show at Cornerstone to support DACA students and art activism

Last year, I was lucky enough to witness another example of change-making at Mitchell High School. I was involved in the Public Achievement program, where Colorado College students coach high schoolers as they create projects that address injustices in their community and world, but outside of Public Achievement, many seniors that year created capstone projects for essentially the same purpose. At an end-of-year event meant to showcase their hard work and build bridges between students and policy-makers, students presented their projects to members of the Colorado Springs Community including representatives from the school board. It was one of these groups that set up the aforementioned Dreamers scholarship, while other groups proposed projects tackling environmental issues, sex trafficking and mental heath awareness, even establishing free childcare and mentorship programs at their school. Mitchell also serves as a Community School and an essential local resource, with a food pantry and health clinic that’s often used as a place where students in the school’s Public Health program can get experience. All of this is to say that Mitchell students are actively involved in their community- a community that often does not have very positive things to say about them. The system certainly isn’t perfect, and the function of Mitchell High School is influenced and impeded by resource allocation and other forces out of their control, but there’s a lot of positive things to say about Mitchell and its students, things which they know, and live, on a daily basis. I was really humbled by this opportunity to have just a tiny entry point into the work that’s happening at this school, and to continue to learn from the counter-narratives they tell as a response to a system designed for their failure.

Empowering Examples of Student Organizing

Throughout our class time last week, groups of us watched documentaries, gave presentations, and taught 90-minute lessons in a project called Teaching for Social Justice. Two of the documentaries (Precious Knowledge and The Children’s March) profiled examples of student organizing that, as our class agreed, everyone should know about. We are young people and students ourselves, and have a lot to learn from examples of students enacting social change in the face of structural barriers, requiring critical awareness of their agency and position in the world. In the wake of Friday’s Climate Strike, these students’ dedication to change-making is, though it sounds cliché, incredibly inspiring. Watching these documentaries taught me that explicit analysis of young peoples’ movements is an essential part of a transformative education geared towards promoting both personal growth and collective social change. So here are some quick and grossly oversimplified summaries of these examples of student activism, as a tiny, tiny start:

The Children’s March

Where: Birmingham, Alabama

When: 1963

What: The Children’s March was a student demonstration conducted at a pivotal point in the Civil Rights Movement that often goes un-reported in mainstream narratives of the movement. Thousands of students, after being covertly trained in non-violent tactics by NSLC leader James Bevel and organized via secret radio codes, skipped school and marched from the 16th Street Baptist Church, protesting gross racial injustice in their city. Despite being urged by their parents and influential Civil Rights Leaders not to protest for their own safety, the children exercised their civic agency anyways. They were uniquely positioned to do so because, unlike their parents, they did not risk losing their jobs; however, the risks and consequences of their activism were still monumental. Students were arrested in droves, and the county jail was filled with almost 1,000 school-aged children on the first day. By the second day, police, led by Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor, resorted to violence, unleashing fire hoses, dogs, and batons on groups of student protesters and continuing to make arrests so large-scale that they were taking students to the jail in school buses. Students were not deterred, and continued to protest in staggering numbers throughout the week, effectively bringing the “normal” workings of Birmingham’s institutions to a halt.

Outcomes: Students were released after intense national public pressure, stemming from President Kennedy himself, after footage of the police brutality was widely publicized. It took images of children being attacked to spark public outrage over racism in Birmingham and across the country. Negotiations ended in the government of Birmingham’s agreement to desegregate public spaces, promote nondiscriminatory hiring practices, and facilitate ongoing public meetings between black and white community leaders. The KKK’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church months later, killing three young girls, was a tragic and violent form of retaliation against the success of the Children’s March, which is cited as one of the catalyzing movements for the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and an inspiration for movements across the nation far into the future.

Precious Knowledge

Where: Tucson, Arizona

When: 2009

What: For years, the Mexican American/Raza Studies program at Tucson High School, which emphasized students’ knowledge of their own cultures and value of their life experiences, unity and love for humanity based on the principles of Paulo Friere, and social justice via organized action and critique of oppressive social systems, had been contributing to high levels of student engagement, increased test scores, and higher graduation rates among mostly Chicanx and Latinx students. However, during the 2008-2009 school year, State Superintendent Tom Horne initiated HB 2281, which would ban the program on the grounds that it separated students based on race (any student could join the classes, and traditional practices of academic tracking often segregate students by race anyways), and promoted “anti-American” values. The film tracks the bill’s advancement through various levels of government, exposing public officials racist opposition to the program, masked in the colorblind narrative that students should not learn that they are oppressed and that all students have equal opportunities and should thus be educated in exactly the same way. Most importantly, Precious Knowledge highlights students’ peaceful and impassioned protests to keep classes that felt relevant to them as individual and cultural beings.

Outcomes: Though HB 2281 passed, and the ethnic studies classes were outlawed, students built love and solidarity among themselves and their communities and gained critical skills in public organizing and civic engagement. The movement to promote rights for Latinx students in Arizona schools continues to this day, largely spearheaded by the activist group, UNIDOS. In 2012, HB 2281 was declared to have been “motivated by racial animus” by a federal court.