walkout

What it looked like as students across America walked out of school to protest gun violence

Thousands of local students sit for 17 minutes during a nationwide student walkout for gun control in front the White House on March 14, 2018. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Students across America left their classrooms on Wednesday to take part in a national protest pushing for stricter gun laws and memorializing those who died in last month’s school shooting in Florida.

The event was rare in its scope, with students from hundreds of schools leaving class for at least 17 minutes in memory of the 14 teens and three teachers killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland one month ago. The event continued throughout the day, with students walking out at 10 a.m. local time across the country.

“People need to start realizing that there needs to be change,” explained Zhy’yon Hoover, a sophomore at Northwest High School in Indianapolis who helped organize that school’s protest, on Wednesday morning.

PHOTO: Dylan McCoy
Students at Northwest High School joined the National School Walkout on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.

In New York City, students in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood chanted and carried signs reading “How many more?”

Other demonstrations were quiet: elementary school students at P.S. 40 in Manhattan stood with their parents and observed a moment of silence.

At Stoneman Douglas, students had gathered on the school’s football field by 10 a.m. David Hogg, a student who has become one of the most prominent faces of student activism after the shooting, livestreamed the walk-out and thanked school administrators for supporting the effort to remember those who died.

“They don’t have their voices, but we still do,” Hogg said.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students from The SALK School of Science in New York City join Wednesday’s national walkout.

In Washington D.C., lawmakers at a U.S. Senate committee hearing on improving school safety acknowledged the event, too.

“Across the country, in a few minutes, students from across America will be exercising their First Amendment right to speak out about changes that they want on how we regulate our Second Amendment right,” said Florida Senator Marco Rubio, alluding to the uphill battle students may face in advocating for stricter gun control laws.

Moments earlier, Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and the judiciary committee’s chair, said that he was introducing a new bill — the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Memorial Act of 2018” — in order to conduct research on school safety and threat assessment training for schools. But Diane Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, focused her remarks on limiting access to guns.

“High school students who have lost their friends are literally begging us to take action to get these guns off the streets and out of our schools,” she said.

In several districts in the Northeast, a snow day — normally a cause for celebration among students — derailed walk-out plans. In Vermont, some students said they would delay the protest until Thursday, but in Portland, Maine, two dozen middle schoolers still marched with signs like, “Will your school be next?” and “Is it your opinion or the NRA’s?” In Massachusetts, despite widespread school closures, many students still planned to march to the statehouse in protest.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students from the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology and Stephen T. Mather Building Arts Craftsmanship High School walked out Wednesday in New York City.

At some schools, protesting students needed to navigate school policies designed to minimize disruption. But some politicians and school officials have offered their support for the event: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and AFT President Randi Weingarten walked out of a Manhattan school and participated in a “die in.” Both the Boston and Philadelphia school districts tweeted support for protesting students.

Meanwhile, students who have long been fighting — and experiencing the consequences of — gun violence had mixed feelings about the national attention the Parkland shooting has focused on the issue.

In Detroit, many students participating were remembering their own, less-publicized tragedies. Darryl Erwin, 17, recalled his mother’s shoulder being grazed when someone fired bullets at several houses on his block.

Students at Western High School in Detroit gather as part of National Walkout Day, a student-led protest happening across the country.

“I don’t want the school shootings to overshadow the youth violence shootings that happen every day,” said Brandon Warren, a high school senior in Indianapolis who had two classmates killed last spring and started a local anti-violence group as a result. Students at his school were allowed to walk out of classes but not leave the school due to safety concerns.

In Colorado, which has a tragic history of school shootings, hundreds of Denver high school students marched out of class and converged on the state Capitol steps to chant and wave signs decrying gun violence.

Some were holding hand lettered signs: “Protect Kids, Not Guns,” one said. “Keep Your Guns Out of My School.” “Am I Next?”

“We’ve been existing in a world of violence since we were born,” one student said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, briefly address the crowd, saying into a megaphone: “You look pretty fired up,” he said into a megaphone. “A big part is just the fact you took the initiative to come out here and show up. It’s a big part, but it’s not the only part.”

Another national protest is planned for next month: a “day of action” on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School. That protest, sponsored by the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Network for Public Education among others, encourages events at schools focused on pushing policy changes to reduce gun violence.

Melanie Asmar, Monica Disare, Dylan Peers McCoy, Amanda Rahn, Kimberly Hayes Taylor, and Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting. 

parent power

Indianapolis charter booster launches parent advocacy fellowship

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When it comes to reforming education, one local nonprofit that supports charter schools wants parents and families to have a seat at the table.

The Mind Trust announced Wednesday that it is establishing a two-year fellowship to develop a parent advocacy organization — and seeking candidates to be a part of it.

The goal of the fellowship is to empower families — particularly low-income families and families of color — to advocate for changes in their publicly funded schools, said The Mind Trust executive director Brandon Brown.

“This is our attempt at really flipping the script, from a relatively top-down approach to education reform to a movement led by families that we hope will be sustainable over time,” Brown said.

A common criticism of education reform efforts, both in Indianapolis and across the nation, is that changes are forced onto communities, and that families affected have little or no input about those changes. But it remains to be seen whether The Mind Trust’s push for greater parent involvement can transcend hotly politicized divides in education. Locally, Stand for Children Indiana’s parent advocacy efforts have faced criticism from those who feel the group is trying to advance a political agenda supporting reform efforts.

Brown said the new parent advocacy group would be independent of The Mind Trust.

“That might mean that eventually they may choose to advocate for something that is not the direction we want to go,” he said.

Still, the group would likely focus on families at Indianapolis charter schools. Brown said he expects the fellow, who will receive coaching from The Mind Trust, to support charter concepts such as giving strong leaders more freedom to run their schools. The fellowship comes with an estimated salary of $75,000 to $90,000 per year.

But Seretha Edwards, a parent at School 43, said families need unbiased training and support — and she’s not sure The Mind Trust is the ideal vehicle for that.

“I’m sure if The Mind Trust is doing it, it’s going to be a biased vetting process,” said Edwards, who is involved in the IPS Community Coalition, a group critical of charter reforms.

It would be up to the fellow to decide what the new parent advocacy organization would look like, and what issues it would undertake, said Shannon Williams, The Mind Trust’s senior vice president of community engagement. She plans to work with community and faith organizations to find the right candidate. Ideally, that person, Williams said, would be a local parent who can connect with other parents and build a grassroots organization. Williams pointed to Memphis Lift and PAVE, or Parents Amplifying Voices in Education, in Washington, D.C., as potential models for parent engagement work.

In Indianapolis, Stand for Children provides a “University for Parents” to train families on how the educational system works and how to ask policymakers for changes. The organization works with parents at new innovation schools and supports parents in endorsing school board candidates. In the past, the group has arranged for parents to go door-to-door to gather support for the district’s referendums.

“I think the biggest thing that we have seen with families that we work with is that they just want a great school for their child,” said Stand Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller.

Cesar Roman, director of community engagement for the pro-school choice Institute for Quality Education, said more parent advocacy is badly needed in Indianapolis.

“What we often leave out is parents themselves and families themselves,” said Roman, who is also a member of Chalkbeat’s Reader Advisory Board. “The No. 1 place where we’ve gone wrong is not engaging people where they’re at.”

This is particularly an issue in low-income communities, experts say, in places like Indianapolis, where upward mobility has proved more challenging than in other American cities.

Wealthier people often have more social capital and more power to put pressure on schools, said Howard Fuller, founder of the now-shuttered Black Alliance for Educational Options, former Milwaukee schools superintendent, and a school-choice advocate.

But in low-income communities, schools “really feel less pressure, because they’re dealing with people who are traditionally powerless,” he said.

Fuller said it’s important for a parent advocacy organization to go beyond engagement, and give parents the power to push for changes.

“The question is, what kinds of parent organizations can be created that are there as a constant — not just for a particular issue or a particular problem,” he said.

The Mind Trust is accepting fellowship applications through March and expects to select a fellow in June.

yes vote

Denver teachers vote to strike in push for higher pay

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association announce the results of their strike vote Tuesday.

Denver teachers voted overwhelmingly to go on strike for the first time in 25 years. Amid a national wave of teacher activism, they’re seeking higher pay and also a fundamental change in how the district compensates educators.

Because of state rules, Monday is the earliest a Denver strike could start.

Ninety-three percent of the teachers and other instructional staff members who voted in a union election Saturday and Tuesday were in favor of a strike, according to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. That surpassed the two-thirds majority needed for a strike to happen.

“They’re striking for better pay, they’re striking for our profession, and they’re striking for Denver students,” said teacher Rob Gould, a member of the union’s negotiation team who announced the strike vote results Tuesday night.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova called the strike vote “not entirely unexpected.”

“From the correspondence that I’ve had with teachers by email and folks that I’ve talked with, it’s really clear there is a lot of frustration on the part of our teachers,” Cordova said.

She has pledged to keep schools open if teachers walk out. In an automated message to parents Tuesday evening, she made it clear that classes will take place as normal Wednesday and “into the foreseeable future.” The district is actively recruiting substitute teachers to fill in during a strike. It is offering to pay them $200 a day, which is double the normal rate.

The strike potentially affects 71,000 students in district-run schools. Another 21,000 students attend charter schools, where teachers are not union members.

Cordova said district officials plan to meet with Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday and share a letter asking for state intervention, which could delay a strike. Denver Classroom Teachers Association officials also plan to meet with Polis Wednesday, according to union Deputy Executive Director Corey Kern.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment cannot impose an agreement between the district and the union, but it can provide mediation or hold hearings to try to bring about a resolution. In 1994, the last time Denver teachers went on strike, Gov. Roy Romer helped negotiate a settlement — after the court refused to order teachers back to work.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to continue to work on finding the common ground,” Cordova said.

The strike vote in Denver comes after a weeklong strike by teachers in Los Angeles. It also follows a wave of activism and agitation for higher teacher pay that began sweeping the country last year. Here in Colorado, teachers from all over the state staged several rallies at the state Capitol last spring, demanding that lawmakers boost funding for the state’s schools.

The issue at hand in Denver is more localized. The teachers union and the school district had been negotiating for more than a year over how to revamp the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, called ProComp.

Late Friday night, an hour and a half before the most recent agreement was set to expire, the union rejected the district’s latest offer. Although the district offered to invest an additional $20 million into teacher pay and revamp ProComp to look more like a traditional salary schedule — which is what the union wanted — union negotiators said the district’s offer didn’t go far enough.

That rejection ended negotiations and set the stage for a strike. The union represents more than 60 percent of Denver’s 5,700 teachers, counselors, nurses, and other instructional staff.

Union officials did not release the number of teachers who voted on the strike or how many members it currently has. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Employment said strike votes are internal union matters over which the department does not have any purview. Kern said the vote was conducted electronically by a third party.

Cordova is in her third week on the job as superintendent. She has reminded the public repeatedly that she started her career as a Denver teacher and counts several teachers among her best friends. But her pledge to be more responsive than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, has been tested in the bargaining process and now will be tested even further.

Denver teachers have long been frustrated by ProComp. In its most recent iteration, ProComp paid teachers a base salary and then allowed them to earn additional bonuses and incentives for things such as working in a high-poverty school or hard-to-fill position.

Denver voters passed a special tax increase in 2005 to fund the ProComp incentives. The tax is expected to generate $33 million this year.

But many teachers found ProComp confusing. Relying on bonuses and incentives caused their pay to fluctuate in ways that made financial planning difficult, they said.

Chris Landis, a fifth grade teacher at Colfax Elementary, said his salary has varied by as much as $5,000 from one year to the next in the four years he’s been teaching in Denver. He sees the union proposal as creating more stability over the long run, which makes the strike a risk worth taking.

“As someone who wants to be a teacher for the rest of my life, the union proposal has a lot going for it,” he said. “Education is worth fighting for. I’m willing to take a personal hit to guarantee the future for our kids.”

The union wants smaller bonuses and more money for base pay. The union also wants the district to spend roughly $28 million more than it currently does on teacher compensation.

The district’s proposal would have increased base salaries, too, but not by as much. And it would have kept the bonuses and incentives more robust. For example, the district’s offer includes a $2,500 incentive for teachers who teach at schools serving a high proportion of students from low-income families, while the union proposal calls for a $1,500 incentive.

District officials said that incentive is key to attracting and retaining high-quality teachers at high-poverty schools, where teacher turnover can be high, and Cordova does not want to compromise on that.

In the end, the union and the district proposals were separated by about $8 million. District officials said they couldn’t come up with any more money, and would already have to make deep cuts to invest the additional $20 million they proposed.

Teachers called their bluff, pointing to what they called a top-heavy administration and noting that $8 million is less than 1 percent of Denver Public Schools’ annual $1 billion budget.

The strike will put pressure on teachers, too, though. The union has a very modest strike fund. A Go Fund Me started on Jan. 16 had raised a little more than $7,000 when the vote results were announced.

“Everybody is stressed out” about going without pay, said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School, “but this is the sacrifice we’re willing to make.”