Jefferson demands respect

January 13, 2014

Sarah Levy reports from Portland, Ore., on a walkout at a high school the media has smeared as "failing"--while the teachers' struggle for a fair contract goes on.

ABOUT 200 students at Jefferson High School in Portland, Ore., walked out of classes on Friday, January 10, in support of their teachers who are locked in an increasingly heated contract battle with the school district--and to reclaim respect for students and the school in general against media claims that Jefferson is a "failure" and a "gang" school.

The protest came during a week of action to build support for the teachers, whose contract campaign has taken up issues of education justice, challenging swollen class sizes and the standardized testing mania. Called by the Portland Student Union and Portland Teachers Solidarity Campaign, the week of actions will culminate on Monday, January 13, with a rally and march on the Portland Public Schools (PPS)board meeting.

On Friday, Jefferson students chanted, "We're the future of this nation, we deserve an education!" as they blocked both lanes of traffic for several blocks on North Killingsworth Street, a busy thoroughfare in North Portland. The signs they held read "No more racist school closures," "We support our teachers," "More art, less OAKS [Oregon's standardized test]" and "Black student power."

Jefferson High School students march through the streets of Portland after walking out
Jefferson High School students march through the streets of Portland after walking out (Bette Lee)

"We want to show that students are standing up for their teachers, but also standing up for themselves," said Jefferson student Sekai Edwards. "We want the district to know that they can't treat our education this way, and that we are aware of what they are trying to do."

AS THE only majority Black school high school in Oregon, Jefferson has been painted by the media as an example of "failing" public schools that need to be shut down and reconstituted.

Over the last 10 years, more K-8 schools have closed in the Jefferson cluster--elementary schools that filter into Jefferson High School--than in the rest of the district combined.

The Jefferson area is majority Black and low income, as are the students who attend the high school--in a city and school system that is increasingly segregated. In addition to the "failure" myth, the school and its students have been labeled as gangsters, with police regularly attending sports competitions--contributing to the school's negative reputation and fueling the drive to close the high school and its feeder schools.

What you can do

Portland teachers and their supporters are asking for solidarity on Monday, January 13.

If you live in Portland, come to a demonstration at the school board meeting sponsored by the Portland Student Union and Portland Teachers Solidarity Campaign--the protest begins at 5:30 p.m. outside PPS headquarters at 501 N. Dixon St.

If you don't live in Portland, but want to show your solidarity with Portland teachers, please wear blue on Monday and upload a picture of yourself to this Facebook page.

The federal No Child Left Behind law and Barack Obama's Race to the Top program have helped to systematically defund schools like Jefferson, leading administrators to support parents' decision to transfer students out of Jefferson, rather than address the lack of equity and resources. With fewer students, there are fewer programs and fewer options for those who remain. Popular classes are often overcrowded or unavailable, leaving teachers to solve the problems as best they can, while students miss out on the education that should be their right.

As Jefferson sophomore Mikey Garcia said at the rally on Killingsworth Street:

I'm here because I love my teachers, and I love my school. But you know what's not fair? It's not fair that there are 43 kids in my anatomy class. It's not fair that my teachers don't have prep time to prepare lessons for me. It's not fair that the district is trying to take these things away, not give them more.

Many students spoke to the connection between the problems they face in their education, and what's at stake in contract negotiations between PPS and the Portland Association of Teachers. Their stories illustrated clearly how when teachers get cut short, so do students.

With the teachers' struggle heating up and headed toward a showdown in the coming weeks, organizers of the Jefferson students' rally hoped to channel energy toward the school board meeting on January 13--an action aimed at forcing the board to listen to what students, parents and community members want to see in the teachers' contract and in our schools.

"We will back our teachers if the district tries to take away their rights," shouted Sekai Edwards to a street full of cheering students. "We will let the teachers know that we will be here for them, just as they are here for us every single day."

DURING THE rally, students gave numerous examples that show how--as the PAT has also insisted during its contract campaign--teachers' working conditions acutely affect students' learning conditions.

One stunning example: Jefferson High School has a single art teacher who is in charge of yearbook, photography, beginning and advanced art and drawing. She is forced to teach two different subjects to two whole classes at the same time.

As senior Edith Moore said:

If she's having to teach two classes at once, that means she has to give half of what she would be able to give for one class. And half is not enough for us. I want to see teachers able to actually teach us--to be able to teach what they're passionate about, what they know about, and be able to teach the right amount of students so we can grow up and do something with our lives and give back to our community.

Students also addressed the stereotype of Jeff students being failures. "Right now, I'm taking my third Portland Community College (PCC) class," said junior Anna Robertson. She added that she was one of many Jefferson students enrolled at PCC:

We're taking college classes while we're in high school, so obviously we're capable. It's just that we don't have the resources we need at our own school. It's not that our teachers aren't doing their job--because they are. And they're doing their hardest. But the problem is that the school district isn't helping them...

[Too many political leaders] are saying that we [students] are the future, but then setting us up to fail. We want to be as great as we can be. We want to be the generation that changes things, that makes this a better world. But we can't do that if they aren't letting us...They're not giving us what we need to be great.

The energy felt by all at the Jefferson walkout is adding new fire to fight for the schools Portland students deserve. This couldn't come at a better time, as the district continues to follow an aggressive strategy against the teachers' union and displays an unwillingness to compromise. It seems more and more likely that the district will try to impose its contract on the union, possibly forcing teachers to strike.

If it comes to this, students could play a pivotal role in a crucial struggle to defend public education. But Jefferson students, as well as many more across the district, have already shown that they are ready to take a stand.

Lauren Steele, a Jefferson junior, drove this home in a spoken-word piece, titled "Teach Me," which she performed at the rally:

You can't leave our education in the hands of a few folks with degrees
We are all perfectly capable of achieving what this system needs
I'm tired of artless, colorless schools, same syllabus every year
Don't support our future leaders and your future is unclear
Your answer to worldly crisis could lie in this city
There are young potential leaders in need of more than just your pity
So we're gonna walk out here in hopes of contributing to this fight, 'cause maybe with a little help
Our generation
Will get it right

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