True Student Rebels Won’t Walk Out


My wife, Pam, bravely stuck her hand into our 16-year-old son’s backpack and pulled out something even more peculiar than usual.

Signed by the L.A. Unified School District’s executive officer for educational services and printed on Board of Education stationery in English and Spanish, the March 27 letter to parents began:

“We certainly understand the sentiments and motivation behind the protests that have been occurring in the community and at many of our schools in the past several days. And, we respect the right of free speech.


“However, we would much prefer that students would limit voicing their protests to the school campus rather than leaving the campus, possibly endangering their safety and missing classroom time.”

The letter concluded with this inelegant waffle: “We will do everything we can to ensure that those students who do leave the campus are supervised as they leave the campus.”

This new weekly column will chart my quest to articulate and answer some key questions about how we educate our children.

The letter prompted me to plunge in with this one: How much responsibility does a student have for his or her education?

Today is May Day. For many high school seniors, it’s the deadline for deciding whether to attend, say, UC Berkeley or Brown. It’s opening day of the Advanced Placement testing season. And today, many students will find themselves again deciding whether to scale schoolyard fences in protest of proposals to toughen immigration control.

Which brings us back to the letter.

I can’t be the only parent to wonder what young people, struggling with boundaries, discipline and accountability, are supposed to think when an official voice of educational authority speaks with such pandering equivocation. But let’s put that aside for a moment.

Let’s put aside too the question of why school officials would think it’s OK to offer this wink and nudge of solidarity on a matter so purely political, let alone so divisive.

More interesting, I think, is the whole notion of walkouts.

The current wave of student demonstrations has been inspired at least in part by the release of an HBO movie about the 1968 Chicano student protests in Los Angeles: “Walkout.”

The point of those mass demonstrations nearly four decades back was to protest the crummy education the school district was palming off on Chicanos. Students were angry that so many Latinos were dropping out of school and so few were being admitted to college. Their gutsy strikes against these and other grievances caught a clueless school board’s attention -- in part because each absence cost the district state money.

Thirty-eight years later, the 40,000 Southern California students who abandoned their classes on that March Monday did so over immigration policy.

Whatever you think about that complex and sensitive issue, you have to acknowledge, I think, that Los Angeles’ schools would be closer today to the excellence those Chicanos began fighting for in 1968 if tens of thousands of immigrants hadn’t crossed the border illegally and then added their ill-prepared children to the foundering system.

So immigration is problematic as a student cause. It’s also the kind of ideologically amorphous movement that attracts political parasites.

A couple of weeks ago I attended an immigration rally, heavily hyped as student-led. This one was on a Saturday. Kids didn’t have to skip algebra to protest. At least 39,500 of the students who had walked out in March must have been in the library studying, because the few dozen who showed up to wallop drums and blow plastic horns on the City Hall lawn were outnumbered by those ubiquitous Revolutionary Communist Party folks and white guys with graying ponytails peddling anti-Bush bumper stickers.

Even those who looked more like aging professors than high schoolers seemed high on the potential of “student power.” And at least one speaker suggested that the way to change immigration policy (and end imperialism and stop the rape of babies in Africa) was for Latinos to boycott classes until things change -- the old “that’ll show ‘em” strategy.

I found the City Hall shenanigans wearying. I called Paula Crisostomo, whose actions as a 17-year-old leader of the 1968 demonstrations at Lincoln High are the basis for the HBO movie.

Crisostomo, now director of community and government relations at Occidental College, where I teach a couple of classes, said she applauds student activism on immigration.

It’s just that many of those who walked out back then went on to fight for better schools as teachers, counselors, principals or -- like Crisostomo -- by working to nudge along middle school and high school students who may not understand why college is important and what they must do to get in.

If students were going to march out of classes again, Crisostomo had hoped it would be to protest the hard-to-fathom fact that poor Latinos still drop out at a horrifying rate, still account for shockingly few college admissions and still receive a crummier education than their middle-class peers, almost 40 years after she risked her own college career by standing up to the district.

Now I’m one of those parents who think LAUSD has made a lot of progress lately. And I was glad to see that missives the district cranked out after the one in my son’s backpack became progressively less wimpy (I particularly like the one in which the Catholic archbishop, the mayor and the LAUSD superintendent tell students in big adult voices to stay in class today).

Still, here’s how the cynic in me is tempted to interpret that letter my wife unearthed: “We still don’t care much whether your children learn biology and algebra or stomp around in circles shouting, so long as they keep their keisters on campus so we can collect that state dough.”

Most educators don’t have that attitude. Some do. That’s why today’s real rebels will be the ones who stay in class and politely but firmly tell their principals to give them better teachers, their teachers to give them more work, their parents to push them harder to complete it and privileged and presumably college-bound kids like my son to brace for some serious new competition.

I’ve just arrived on the education beat, so correct me if I’m wrong, but that strikes me as the most efficient way to change attitudes, change schools, change the world.

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