Saturday, April 18, 2015

My First Protest

A T-shirt from the rally gives Richmond legislators a piece of this teacher's mind

Earlier this year I spoke before Chesapeake's school board about the negative effects of budget cuts on teaching and learning in my Latin classroom. But the problem lies not with our superintendent nor school board, but with Virginia, itself, which has drastically cut its per-pupil spending in recent years. The local school system is just doing the best it can with the lousy cards it's been dealt by the state legislature. Virginia's economy has improved since the Great Recession, but our schools are struggling more than ever.

So I spent most of the day at my first-ever political protest, the "Put Kids First" rally in Richmond, our state capitol. The Virginia Education Association (VEA) and the state Parent and Teachers' Association (PTA) sponsored the event.

Chesapeake Educators head to Richmond to "put kids first"

I felt a little spoiled. The event was well organized. We each got water bottles, snacks, and a T-shirt for participating. Helpers were everywhere dressed in yellow. Those who wanted it got free bus transportation to and from Richmond, which I was happy to accept. Music entertained us at the Richmond Convention Center as we waited for the march to start. Those who had special needs were welcomed and included, and there was a shuttle bus for those who were not capable of walking the six blocks to the capitol and back, although I saw a few people in wheelchairs travel the route with us.

"Big Momma Shakes" was one band that entertained us. Here's a clip:

The Richmond Boys' Choir was another great music group:

The Richmond Boys' Choir has a nineteen-year tradition of excellence

 Here's a brief clip of their performance:

But, beyond food and entertainment, why were we there? What do we educators, students, and parents want enough that we are willing to give up most of a sunny Saturday in April? The list is reasonable and much needed:
  1. Increased funding for schools and an equitable funding system.
  2. Smaller class sizes.
  3. A reduction in state-mandated tests to free up time and money for what really matters: classroom instruction.
Marching towards the capitol to "put kids first" in Virginia

 I loved the speeches and the signs. We heard from everyone from the VEA and PTA presidents to superintendents to teachers to parents to students to people who maintain school buildings or drive buses. Especially touching were speeches by an 11-year-old named Elijah Coles Brown, whose personality and confidence fired up the crowd like an old-fashioned tent-revival preacher. Elijah confessed he doesn't score well on state mandated assessments due to testing anxiety. Just his usage of vocabulary in his speeches displayed his obvious talent and intelligence.

Elijah Coles Brown attends a Blue-Ribbon School but seeks equity for all, and can he ever fire up a crowd!

Listen to Elijah working his audience:

A teacher (whose name I didn't catch) at Martin Luther King, Jr., Middle School in Richmond talked about the "different worlds" of the legislators at our capitol and his middle school located only a mile away. His school is mostly Black and Hispanic and has over a 90% free and reduced-price lunch rate, which means a crushing level of poverty. The school has successes despite its challenges, and many of these successes cannot be measured by test scores.

This teacher is a passionate advocate for Martin Luther King, Jr., Middle School in Richmond

One young woman in the audience held a sign, "I am a student, not a test score," and I couldn't help but agree. Here are some other of the many signs that caught my fancy:

Why are we funding prisons over education?
"Lack of Funding, High Stakes Tests, Grade: F
Many new teachers work two or three jobs to make ends meet

Near the end of the rally, Reverend Ben Campbell of Richmond put the schools' struggles in the historical context of non-violent protest against racial segregation and inequality. He says there has been "passivity" in recent years to the point where "injustice is normal in Virginia." Politicians bash education and cut support, but we need a "march on ballot boxes" after our rally due to the need to "educate every child in Virginia."

Reverend Ben Campbell of Richmond: the struggle for educational equality is ongoing
Teachers are more demoralized than I've seen them in my 20-plus years of teaching, but I'm convinced the pendulum of public opinion will swing in our favor. Our politicians need to quit handing millions of dollars over to the major testing companies--which lobby them hard, by the way--and trust teachers and educators again. On the bright side we got good news coverage on 8 News and WTVR.
Easy political question, "Do you support more funding for public education, yes or no?"
Her shirt reads "Put Me First." Adorable!

Those of us who work in education are not the enemy. We have childrens' needs at heart and will put kids first. We just want the resources to continue to do our jobs.

Showing off the T-Shirt I got for participating in the Put Kids First rally

On the other hand, this T-shirt says it all for those of us who put kids first

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