School Talk

If Only 4th Graders Could Walk Out of School To Have Their Voices Heard

Superintendent Tommy Chang (left) and Mayor Marty Walsh (right). (Photo by Boston Herald)

A week ago today, 3,500 high school students walked out of the Boston Public Schools to protest looming budget cuts and by week’s end, the Mayor and Superintendent had made the joint decision to restore all proposed cuts to Boston’s high schools. Despite media portrayal to the contrary, this was not an edict out of the Mayor’s office. The Superintendent makes the final call about the BPS budget and changes to it aren’t made by the Mayor’s office.

Some believe it’s the quintessential example of the power of student activism. Others see it as a disturbing example of unions using students to fight their battles.  And still others worry that Mayor Walsh and Superintendent Chang have set a dangerous precedent that sets up kids and families for disappointment when hard decisions in the future can’t be reversed no matter how many kids walk out.

Cuts were deepest at the high school level so it makes sense that they’d be the first to have their programs restored. It’s always harder to add positions and programs after they’ve been eliminated so the decision to change course definitely helps to assuage what has been a deep sense of uncertainty and even pain at many of Boston’s high schools.

But there are other children for whom this move by the Mayor and Superintendent is a lost opportunity. The expansion of the Advanced Work Class program was part of Value Statement #1 in the Superintendent’s 100 Day Plan but it impacts younger students who can’t walk out of school, fill up Boston Common, or storm the steps of the state house during school hours. For years Boston has been keeping 90% of its 4th graders out of the Advanced Work Class program. While the top 10% of test takers are invited into the kingdom of higher standards and more rigorous work, the remaining 90% of 4th graders are staring at a “keep out” sign when it comes to access to advanced work.

That was all going to change next year but the decision to shift funds and restore high school cuts means that the plan to increase access to the Advanced Work Class has been put on hold.

Chang said he will delay plans for some of his signature initiatives, such as offering expanded access to rigorous course work for elementary school students, until the school district gets more money to pay for that effort. (Boston Globe, March 11th)

Superintendent Tommy Chang knows that there’s a good chance his 4th graders (and their parents) are disappointed by what, to them, feels like a horse trade in the wake of a student protest. Perhaps they wish the Massachusetts Educational Justice Alliance, the Boston Educational Justice Alliance and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools had rallied them to walk out last Monday too. Maybe then they wouldn’t have lost this unique and long overdue opportunity for equity and access to challenging work , access to a program in which black and latino students are woefully underrepresented.  

These unacceptable inequities are present even within the offerings for our youngest youth. Advanced Work Class (AWC) is one such example: African-American and Hispanic students are significantly underrepresented in AWC compared to peer White and Asian students. (excerpted from page 2 of the 100 Day Plan)

Let’s hope that the same parents, the same interest groups, even the same student leaders will rally for the younger students in the coming days, months, and years. And let’s hope that the Mayor and Superintendent don’t allow for the delay of this bold initiative to become a permanent detour.

High Schools were spared painful cuts and that is a good thing. Students who protested cuts should feel proud, empowered even, that their voices may have played a role in their leaders’ decision to adjust the budget.

But this move is also a calculated risk. The decision hinges on the belief that increased funding is coming from the state. Everyone loves an optimist and right now, the Mayor and Superintendent of Boston certainly are that. But this optimism doesn’t erase the reality that hard conversations and decisions are coming down the pike regarding resource allocation at Boston’s high schools. Hard conversations about structural problems and inefficiencies are on the horizon and even the most impassioned student activism can’t make it not so.

What do you think?

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