Classroom Consciousness | The Nation


Classroom Consciousness

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The students then wrote a series of recommendations to send to the district to improve schools. More computers, wrote Ashley. Involving kids and teachers in the voting process about what to do about privatization, wrote Ebony. One activist, Jacob Winterstein, a 15-year-old clad in Pumas, a leather and shell bracelet around his slender wrist, spoke angrily of the "cookie cutter" education and the "falseness" of Edison.

About the Author

Alissa Quart
Alissa Quart, the author of The Republic of Outsiders and Branded, is the editor for the nonprofit Economic Hardship...

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"This is happening in Philly, not in Ardmore [a wealthy suburb], because we are a poor and minority community," Jacob said. Like many of the student opponents of Edison, Jacob cited the low funding of Philadelphia schools relative to schools in suburban districts as the major reason for the public schools' difficulties, a problem that has led to the district's $216 million deficit. As school funding would not change under private management, the students and the city's other Edison opponents believe the schools would be as or more likely to fail anyway when run by the company than if they were to remain under the auspices of the city or state.

Edison's corporate identity also rankles the students and is one of the major themes of their rallies and meetings. Edison's current CEO Chris Whittle founded Channel One, the advertising-laden high school television station that broadcasts to 12,000 schools a day. The teens mocked Whittle's stuffy bow tie and railed against the specter of Wall Street investors profiting from their education.

"Edison is like Channel One," said one teen activist, Max Goodman, 17, a rosy-faced senior. "It will have an unconscious effect on all the students just like advertising in the schools. And the Gap has money into Edison so maybe one day they'll say, 'This lesson is brought to you buy the Gap.'" She compared it to other corporate investors in her school and recalled how, at a fundraising bake sale, "our principal told us we couldn't serve juice or hot chocolate because it competes with Coca-Cola, the brand in our school's machines."

"The branding of the schools is not going to make people who get ahead," added Jacob. "We want proper funding for public school, rather than bringing in a for-profit organization."

For Jacob and many of the others, the battle against Edison is the first political movement they have encountered. And in the course of the fight, they have used their teen sensibility to get their message across--turning Sean "P. Diddy" Combs's commercially motivated tune "Bad Boy for Life" into antiprivatization chant: "We Can't Be Stopped Here--Coz It's Philly for Life" and holding a sleep-out with pizza on the steps of City Hall.

The students have also joined up with others in the larger anticorporate movement. That very day in January, the anti-Edison teens were planning a march with Spiral Q Puppet Theater, a Philadelphia-based band of political puppet-makers who participated memorably in puppet-waving actions against the Republican National Convention in summer 2000. Together, the teens and the puppetistas planned to build images of Chris Whittle out of papier-mâché.

What is perhaps most striking about these teens at the Student Union, and at their sister organization Youth United for Change, is that they defy the stereotype of their generation, besotted with corporate culture. In one pithy expression of the movement, blue stickers pasted on backpacks read: I AM NOT FOR SALE: SAY NO TO PRIVATIZATION.

While theirs has been only a partial victory, it is a victory nevertheless; with some help from adults, a bunch of adolescents have managed to considerably diminish Edison's role in their future. "We want all the real cliché things--smaller class sizes, to feel part of the schools, to be part of the decision-making," Jacob said. "The way the world is set up not everyone can be a doctor and lawyer, but now they decide for you before you get to kindergarten. All we want is for us all to have an equal chance."

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