STONYBROOK—Chanting, “No choice, no voice!”, at least 100 English High School (EHS) students walked out of classes April 3 and marched around the school property, protesting the school’s new “pilot” format. [See related story.]
The students said they had no meaningful input into the pilot school plans, and objected to two of its provisions: extending the school day and cutting the student population by about 400. The student population objection may involve a misunderstanding of the official process.
“Students had no say-so,” said protest organizer Shamere Ross, a 10th-grader at EHS, in a Gazette interview. “They weren’t asked what they wanted.”
Ross acknowledged that a “design team” included students, but said it was only empowered to comment on a pilot plan that was already a done deal.
Some students disagreed with the protest and some of its points. Senior Hector Pizarro said students didn’t take advantage of opportunities to have input. “At the last minute, everybody wants to complain,” he said.
EHS Headmaster José Duarte did not respond to a Gazette message left with his assistant.
Boston Public Schools (BPS) spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo referred most questions to Duarte, noting that EHS largely developed the plan itself.
“As far as we’ve been told, the students were at least told [of the plans] along the way,” Palumbo said. “The overall goal is to provide a better product for English High students.”
Ross said Duarte attempted to prevent the student “strike” by pulling Ross from his first class and keeping him in an office room. “He said, ‘You’re not going anywhere. There’s not going to be a strike today,’” Ross said.
But someone pulled a fire alarm, forcing Ross to be allowed outside with everyone else.
Ross’s mother, Sheila Everette, told the Gazette that Ross organized the protest by himself, though EHS contacted her about it.
“The school did discourage me from doing it,” Everette said. “They wanted him on the student council [instead]. I encouraged him to have a peaceful walkout.”
Around 9 a.m., the protesting crowd—apparently made up entirely of students—paraded around the school property, its leaders holding hand-made signs with such slogans as, “We want a voice at EHS.”
“They won’t let us have any choice,” one marcher told the Gazette.
Among the adults monitoring the protest was a man in a suit carrying a walkie-talkie, who shouted to the students, “Revolutions are good sometimes, but this is not the way to do it!” He urged them to write down their objections instead. He told the Gazette he is not a teacher or staff member, but only someone “visiting from outside.”
Pizarro said the protest should have been held someplace like the State House. “It makes the teachers look bad” unfairly to protest at EHS, Pizarro said, adding that he saw a teacher crying from hurt feelings later.
After the main march, Ross—who said he was suspended—continued a protest across the street from the school all day with a smaller group of students.
Ross said the pilot plan was presented to students at an assembly about three months ago in a way that meant, “This is it. It’s set in stone.”
Ross said he chose not to participate in the design team process that followed, considering it a “waste of time” intended to make it seem like students had direct input. “This design team has made no difference,” he said.
Pizarro acknowledged that the pilot plan was written without direct student input. But, he said, he was on a “leadership team” that had some veto power. “They already came out with the proposal, but we got to choose what stays and what goes,” he said, adding that complaining students also didn’t take advantage of open mics at assemblies about the plan.
Pizarro added that he’s not fully satisfied with the plan, either, and sympathizes with students who will go through the system upheaval when the plan is implemented next year.
“I have no problem with the school turning to [a] pilot [model],” Ross said, explaining that he only objects to the process and the two controversial points in the plan.
The objection to the longer school day comes because it will conflict with some students’ after-school jobs, Ross said, including his own.
“It’s going to be hard for them,” Pizarro said in agreement.
Palumbo said BPS recognizes that is a problem for some students and will “work with them” on a solution.
The objection to a reduction in the student population appears to be based on a misunderstanding that existing students will be targeted for expulsion. That is not part of the official plan, according to BPS.
“They’re just going to kick out random people,” claimed one protestor.
Palumbo said all current students will be able to finish their schooling at EHS if they choose to, with the overall population being reduced by attrition. There will be no targeted cuts of “low-performing” students or anyone else, he
However, Ross claimed there is already an increase in expulsions for relatively minor infractions, adding that a friend of his was among those kicked out.
As EHS reforms itself under pressure from the state, Ross described an atmosphere of finger-pointing. “The whole blame is being placed on the students, pretty much,” he said, suggesting that a better solution would be replacing teachers who fail to inspire students to stay in school.
However, he said there are many good teachers at EHS, including some who wanted to join in his protest but feared they’d be fired for doing so.
Ross said Duarte took the protest personally. “He thought I was going to direct the strike against him because [many] students don’t like him,” Ross said. “He said, ‘Why are you making this about me?’ I said, ‘This is not about you at all.’”
“He’s not a bad headmaster,” Ross said. “I think he’s doing a good job.” But, Ross said, he feels Duarte isn’t sticking up for the students on the pilot plan issue because of the political pressure involved.
Pizarro said Duarte actually fought for the students in various ways, including demanding that the student population cut be reduced by 200.
Ross said his next move will be to work within the system. “I’m probably going to join the student council,” he said, adding he wants to push for more classes teaching practical skills.