Portland students take the initiative

November 26, 2013

A showdown over the future of public schools is looming in Portland Ore., as the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) continues to mobilize support for their proposals in contract negotiations with Portland Public Schools (PPS) administrators.

The issues in this long-running confrontation go beyond teachers' pay and conditions--and directly affect students, as the members of the Portland Student Union explain. Four members of the union were guests on Labor Radio, a program on the Portland station KBOO at 90.7 FM. Alexia is a recent graduate of Lincoln High School who is taking a gap year and continuing to organize, and Lily is a senior at Lincoln. Ian and Emma are seniors at Cleveland High School and members of the school's school union. The four spoke with Labor Radio cohosts Megan Hise and Meredith Reese about the work of the Portland Student Union ahead of a conference on student organizing sponsored by the group.

Mer: Just to get started, maybe some people haven't heard as much about the Portland Student Union. A lot of our listeners at KBOO are union activists or other activists. Tell us a little bit about how the Portland Student Union got started.

Ian: The Portland Student Union started organizing against austerity cuts. We saw austerity cuts throughout the community and austerity cuts in our schools, and we thought it was something that really needed to be organized around. In the schools, a lot of students don't know what austerity cuts are and don't know that they're happening throughout our communities.

Then, from there, we moved on to standardized testing. We saw the overuse of standardized testing in our schools and the inappropriate use of standardized testing to evaluate teachers as well as evaluate students. There's also big race inequalities and class inequalities for standardized tests, and we wanted to educate students about those things and take action.

Alexia: The hope with the Portland Student Union is that we have student union branches at every high school that then send reps to a greater Portland Student Union. That way, we can organize around specific things within our high school, as well as organize around things over the entire district. So we're not currently organized at every high school, but that's our final goal.

Portland students march in solidarity with their teachers
Portland students march in solidarity with their teachers (Portland Student Union)

Mer: I've also heard about walkouts. Does anyone want to take credit for some of your past exploits as the Portland Student Union?

Emma: I don't know if any one single person could take credit. The walkouts were sort of one of the final movements, I would say, in our campaign against standardized testing. So it wasn't necessarily like, "We're going to walk out of schools because we're tired of these tests." It was that in a sense--but also, there was a lot more awareness.

After these walkouts that occurred in high schools around the city, as well as cities around the country, a lot more students were aware of what the student union was, and they came to these meetings. We had such a huge turnout, and these people have really been instrumental throughout the rest of our campaigns.

Alexia: In 2012, we saw $27 million of budget cuts coming to PPS. That was kind of the first big action by students. We had the students on strike on May Day--about 200 kids skipped school. The original idea was that we'd come protest at the PPS headquarters, but we ended up not being allowed in. There were already police there, so we just took it to the streets and marched all around Portland, went to City Hall, came back to PPS, got to talk to Carol--

Mer: Who's Carol?

Alexia: Carol Smith is the superintendent of Portland Public Schools. It was interesting because a couple days later, Sam Adams, the mayor, "mysteriously" found $5 million to give to PPS. So we consider that a success, and I think that was one of the first payoff points for the Portland Student Union, because a lot of students got involved after that.

Mer: Can you tell me a little bit more about the Portland Student Union--how you operate and what kinds of issues you intend to take up for students?

Ian: Students find it very important to run the union horizontally, through horizontal leadership and not have one specific leader. We try to run the group collectively, and that makes sure everybody has an equal voice. But also, it's really hard to organize students. You have this four-year turnover, and there's a thought that when everybody has an equal voice, you won't have a four-year turnover where you'll lose all your school activism. It'll be easier to carry that on.

Mer: A lot of people are familiar with a union that's workplace based. What's the point of having a union through students?

Lily: I feel like it's important to have a student union because these cuts don't only affect teachers, but students directly. These things that are being asked of teachers are, for example, about planning periods and the amount of time they have to plan the rest of the day.

Currently at Lincoln, teachers have seven periods of work time and one period to plan. That really affects the students, because I would like to go in and talk to my teachers if they can talk, but unfortunately, students are lined out of the classroom around the corner, and I'd say not even half of those students are met with. It's important for students to realize that this directly affects them, and it's their problem, too. I just think it's important that they be educated, and stand up and fight for teachers, because they're fighting for themselves and their futures.

Alexia: I think you'll find that there's plenty of groups that say they stand for children and that they care about education, but so often, they're entirely adults in these groups, organizing for students. It's so frustrating to see adults come to meetings and say, "I only look at issues through a student-first lens," when you haven't talked to students. Look at what the student union is working on--that everything you're doing entirely contradicts what we're asking for.

We are out there to really ensure that student voice is being heard and that our demands are beings reached. A lot of this is almost a campaign to petition our school board members, our state legislature, everyone out there who claims to be working for students.

Mer: One thing you've talked about with the Portland Student Union is that there are demands and a student voice. What are some of the things that students are looking for when it comes to education?

Alexia: Last December, we actually put together a list. We called it our five-point program of areas that we felt needed to be addressed in public schools. Some of the things listed were: standardized testing and its use to evaluate both students and teachers; budget cuts and how we see those affecting our public education; the criminalization of youth or the "school-to-prison pipeline"; and the corporate attack on education. We are emphasizing student voices and collectively working in our schools for more community-based schools, rather than schools that are so mandated by the state and district.

Lily: My mom is a third grade teacher, and she was about to lead her third graders to take the OAKS test, which does take a considerable amount of funding. This girl came in, normally a bright sunny personality and excited to learn, but she's obviously disturbed by something. She can't concentrate, she's crying, something's wrong.

So my mom goes up to the girl, and they're about to take their OAKS test, but this girl's obviously not ready. My mom said, "What's going on, sweetie?" She proceeds to tell that her parents had fought earlier that morning. It was probably just a little squabble, something that married couples have, but it had destroyed this girl for the beginning of the day.

No matter how good this girl was at math or spelling or reading, that's not going to be reflected in her test scores that day because of something that had happened at home, far away from the classroom that had nothing to do with that teacher. Yet teachers are expected to be evaluated by these standardized tests when they won't accurately reflect the student.

I'd also like to further explain this idea by using an analogy that I personally love, from a parody called "No dentist left behind." It takes the perspective of: What if dentists were treated this way.

If you imagine a dentist who has many clients, there may be a client that lives in a food desert--meaning there aren't many places to get fresh food, and maybe the closest thing is a mini-mart-- so this particular person has more cavities. The dentist may try as hard as he can to treat the cavities--to make sure this patient is healthy--but at the end of the day they have cavities. Is that the dentist's fault? Should the dentist get less pay because this particular client comes in with cavities, outside of the dentist's workplace?

I think it's a perfect example, because only teachers are penalized for something like this. To counter this, I think it would be extremely valuable to have teachers be evaluated in a different way.

Emma: I first got involved with the Portland Student Union when I went down to Salem to lobby with the legislators down there in support of not cutting $22 million from the Portland Public School District, which would have obviously been very detrimental to my everyday education. I would see fewer art classes, P.E. Classes. They've had to cut sports programs. Women's golf is cut. Men's golf has been cut. These are outlets for some students, and that's how they're going to be going to college. They're going to have scholarships. Girl's golf scholarships are great.

So I went down, and I met with legislators like Diane Rosenbaum and numerous other members of the Senate and of the House. I argued that as students, our education is the platform for the rest of our lives, and it's what's going to be one of the most influential aspects of who we are--and to take $22 millions away from that is just such a detrimental and horrific thing to do to students. I mean, it's not just affecting whether or not I'm going to be able to take ceramics in school, but it's going to be affecting my ability to perform in the rest of my life.

Alexia: We also saw this year that the youth bus pass that's given to us by the city, TriMet and PPS was on the chopping block. That was another thing that students organized around. We got students testifying at the school board meetings and talking to TriMet, city council members and Portland Public School board members about protecting our youth pass, because that's such an important thing for students to have to transport themselves to school.

It's another issue that goes along with budget cuts, something that we see every couple years that's being threatened, so we organized around it, and it definitely helped us in actually getting the city and TriMet to find funds to fund that again this year.

Alexia: I think that kind of ties in with another one of our points, which is the corporate attack on education and this idea of corporate education reform. Who really has power in deciding what's going on in public education?

I think we see this in a national charter school movement in which a lot of our public schools are being closed and turned into charters schools. You even see this from Arne Duncan, who's the Secretary of Education, when he said, "Katrina was the best thing that happened to New Orleans." Katrina came through destroyed tons of their public schools, and what happened in the end was that so many of those schools became charter schools.

It hasn't necessarily hit Portland. I think a lot of our charter schools here are really community-based and great, but I think it's a big fear, especially when you see that the greatest amount of charter schools are in the Jefferson cluster, where they've also had to close the most public schools than all of the other clusters combined in the last 10 years.

I think that's directly a result of parents having other options. The schools are evaluated based on test scores. In the Jefferson cluster, a lot of them appear to be "in need of improvement," which is basically failing. A lot of them are Title I schools. They're "focus" and "priority" schools, all based on mandates from the national and state government. It means that these schools then have more of the focus on improving their test scores, and that means money is going towards testing coordinators instead of art teachers.

In a lot of places all of these corporate mandates and these national and state mandates have made these schools places where students don't really want to be. Charter schools are provided as an alternative. So it's definitely something to fear, and it's something that we want to work on to really reclaim that these are our public schools. We don't want them in the hands of corporate lobbyists.

Ian: The charter schools are privately run, so they're not in the public interest. Public education is something that is in the public interest, and it's all of our duties as citizens and as members of the community to provide public education. We don't want to see private companies and private corporations hijack education, and that's the fear of these charters schools.

You see this in a lot of other places in our country right now. For example, the postal service is in the middle of being privatized, and that's a public service that is publicly owned. It's really scary to see the private takeover of all our public industries.

Alexia: I think it becomes a cycle because once you have students leaving the public schools, the money follows the students, so that school no longer gets as much money, they can no longer fund as many programs, the school's worse, more students leave, and slowly you do have this private takeover.

Ian: Yes, and in the future, education could become a voucher system where you take your voucher and take it to the private school, and there would be no "public" schools.

Alexia: One of our other points was stopping the criminalization of youth, or the school-to-prison pipeline.

This is something that I know the Jefferson High School Student Union is really planning in taking on, because so often, especially in a school that has a high ratio of students of color and a high poverty rate, the school seems incredibly criminalized by the community, which definitely has impacts on their enrollment. I know that a lot of what they're doing is reclaiming their school as a place where students really want to be and also stopping this criminalization of youth.

They get labeled as being a gang school. Recently, the Portland Tribune wrote an article about gang activity in Portland, and the picture was of students at the Jefferson High School football game. So they're doing a lot of organizing around that.

I heard a personal story from a student who's really heading up their student union, about a student she knew who got sent to prison, was taken out of public school--the education system in prison is probably worse than what we have in our public schools right now--and then came back to school and was behind and wasn't passing their tests.

That's a lot of what they see--students drop out. They have a 35 percent graduation rate, and a lot of it is all because the focus isn't as much on education, but is so much on "containment" and ensuring that police officers roam the halls. They're not a place for education anymore, but a place to just babysit kids, when really that money should be invested in proper education and giving students more opportunities, so that we have after school programs and we have reasons that really bring us to school and make us love our schools.

Ian: Another critical point of the Portland Student Union's goals is to have collectively run schools. We'd like to have schools run with students' and teachers' input, not the top-down mandates that we currently see in our education system.

For example, teachers and students right now in Portland feel somewhat helpless with the district being so disconnected with our schools. I know when the PAT had a rally recently, we all went into the district building and walked in on Carol Smith, the superintendent, showing a video of goats eating grass across the district, while teachers are in contract negotiations. Only one member has gone to any of the contract negotiations--that's Steve Buell. None of the other board members have gone to the contract negotiations. Carol Smith hasn't been to one.

There's just this huge disconnect between the district and the schools, and the district and the board members are still making the decisions. We find it appropriate for students and teachers to collaborate and make the decisions for our schools.

Alexia: Not only is this at the district level, but we see it at the state level and at the federal level--where we now have these things like Race to the Top and waivers from No Child Left Behind. But in order to get those, you must fulfill requirements which mean evaluation based on test scores and other programs that most likely I don't see Portland implementing if we had the choice.

Emma: Another point that the Portland Student Union has really taken on is the idea of academic freedom and student's voice inside of their classroom.

For me personally, the most influential teacher I had was my eighth grade teacher, because he brought his own opinion and his passion into the classroom. He is one of the few teachers that I've had whose opinion I honestly, truly care about, and who really pushed me to do my best and got me passionate about politics and about things that were going on. There were core subjects, but we looked at them from different views.

So I think that one of the issues that needs to be addressed nowadays is making sure that teachers are able to form their own curriculum and bring their own voice into their classroom, because that's going to be the most effective thing to a student, and it's going to be what they remember, rather than just what the district handed down.

Along with that, I think that students should be able to have their own voice in their classroom. When it comes to projects, a student can take an idea that they learned about, run with it and be able to present it--having school be a place where you can form your own ideas and really educate yourself, in a way.

Lily: I'd just like to stress that teachers aren't in this job for the money. They're in it because they like kids. I mean, teachers don't get paid as well as they should, but they realize that, and they're still willing to go and teach kids, so I think it's a testament to the fact that they should be in charge of their own curriculums. If they're that invested, they're there for the kids, I definitely feel like it's a perfect example of why they should have a say in what they teach their kids.

Emma: And the passion that they bring is going to rile up the students and make them passionate about what they're learning. And that creates a stronger community in a sense, because then it's not student versus teacher, but it's student and teacher. They're working together, and they're helping each other. It creates an environment where students want to be, and it creates a relationship where the student sees their teacher not as just some person who teaches the class that they want to skip, but as someone who's a mentor. In a sense, they have a more equal sort of relationship.

Lily: I also think it's valuable that kids have a say in their own curriculum, because if they think that something is important and should be taught and they're encouraged to do so, it teaches them that they do have a say in general, and they carry that with them for the rest of their lives. They realize that they do have an impact, and that they can change things for the better if they want those things to be changed.

Currently, I feel that with teachers teaching to the test and more oppressive curriculum, kids don't take this with them. They feel like, "Oh well, I'm put in this box, and I'm supposed to follow these rules," and they don't have the skills later to challenge anything, or to collaborate, or to put their own opinion into what they want to see, whether it be education or just going on in life. I feel like that's a very valuable lesson that we're currently not taking as much advantage of.

Emma: And with such boxed-in curriculum, students do--I myself feel this way--begin to lose interest in what it is that they're learning about. It becomes more of a thing where you sit down, you study something, you take a test, and then when you leave the classroom, you'll have no memory of what it is that you just did. That's obviously going to be an issue when you go on with the rest of your life.

Mer: It sounds like an amazing project and a great way to make our students and our communities stronger in the future. I'd like to let our listeners know about ways that we can support you--ways that we can get the message out. How can people get involved with the Portland Student Union, and how can people get involved specifically around the teacher's struggle?

Ian: There's a lot of different way to get involved--for students, as well as other members of the community.

For students, we have a convention coming up where we're going to work on building unions in each school. Last year, we had unions in several high schools, but we learned the lesson about turnover in high schools, and it's really easy for high school activism to fall apart. We would like to build those unions again. We're inviting all high school students in Portland Public and across the state of Oregon and southwest Washington to come, join, learn how to build a union in your school, and learn how to do student organizing.

Emma: For the schools that do have unions this year, Cleveland being one of them, there are typically lunch meetings that occur once a week, where you can just come in, don't feel pressured at all, where you can just sit, listen and sort of absorb what it is that we're doing. That's a great way to get involved, or just talk to someone who you know is knowledgeable about the issues that we're supporting.

Lily: For students, it's important to talk to your teachers. They aren't specifically allowed to confront or tell their students about the issues, but they can respond to your questions. So ask them. I encourage you to ask your teachers.

On Mondays, teachers are wearing blue in solidarity, and there are buttons being shared. If you want to show your support for the contract negotiations, wear blue on Mondays. For more information on the latest facts going on with the contract negotiations, you can visit pdxteachers.org--and for the Portland Student Union information, there's a Facebook group: Portland Student Union. You can reach us by e-mail at [email protected].

Ian: Lily touched on the teacher negotiations which are going on right now, and that's where we really need support in our unions around the state and in our communities. We'd really like to put pressure on the district to give the teachers a good contract. Currently, it looks like the district is pushing teachers to strike. We've seen the district use union-busting tactics. We don't want that to happen in the Portland Public Schools system. That would be extremely detrimental to our school year and to our teachers.

Stay up to date with what's currently happening with the teacher's union struggle. We'd love for you to come out to rallies, but also, call the district and tell them that it's unacceptable to bust the teachers' union and to put thousands of students at jeopardy of losing days of school if they're forced to strike.

Emma: E-mail members of your community or administrators, making sure that they're knowledgeable about the issues that are going on between the district and the teachers union. This also shows that you care about what's going on, and that you aren't willing to just stand there, and be silent as drastic issues are affecting your education.

Ian: There's some really big issues in the teacher's contract that affect us directly as students, specifically caseload. Currently, high school teachers have a 180-student cap that they can take on. The district wants to bump that up to 210 students. High school teachers currently have an hour and a half a day to plan for classes. The district wants to cut that back to 60 minutes per day, and the district wants the teachers to take on an extra class during the day.

These are things that all directly affect us as students and don't leave our teachers the time to teach us effectively. We don't see any reason that the district should be making these cutbacks in the contract, and these are the biggest issues that we as students are rallying around.

Emma: On that teacher planning, the 60-minute teacher planning period would be moved to outside of the school day, so they would teach a full eight periods and then have their planning period outside of school. Whatever time they had to prep would now be taken away.

Lily: Additionally, if that's outside school time, and I would like to talk to my teacher about an assignment or get help, that would be their planning period, and I would be encroaching on the only time that they have to plan for eight periods. So that directly affects me as a student. If I want an essay to be graded or if I need help on that essay, I'm not going to get it from that teacher.

Ian: The current district contract proposal does not give teachers the time to teach and it doesn't give students the time to learn.

Alexia: The Portland Student Union has taken a stand on it. We are in support of the teachers union's "student-focused proposal," the first of their two proposals. We just really want to encourage the district's bargaining team to talk about these issues, because currently, they're refusing to talk about things like caseload, class size, planning time and that sort of thing. They call these things "permissive," so we actually have a petition going around that is encouraging the district's bargaining team to have these conversations, and we encourage everyone to go sign it.

Ian: It's obvious that the district isn't going to budge and give the teachers a fair contract, so the responsibility falls onto us as students and as communities to force the district to give them a good contract. That's why we're organizing a student union, and that's why we need these student unions in every school, and we need our communities to put pressure on the district.

In the coming months, we'd really like to see the community and the students come together, stand in solidarity with each other, and put direct pressure on the district to settle with the teachers. Not only can we push back on these current proposals, but we can also create a movement to really make the schools that we deserve and have beautiful schools in Portland and around the country.

Mer: And for those who are not students, you can join the PAT Solidarity campaign, a group of community activists, parents and others who are concerned about what the teachers are going through and about schools in our community, and who want to follow this excellent example of Portland students organizing to support teachers and education.

Transcription by Meredith Reese

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