Classroom Consciousness

Classroom Consciousness

In mid-December, 2,500 teenagers walked out of their Philadelphia public high school classrooms and into the city’s intersections.


In mid-December, 2,500 teenagers walked out of their Philadelphia public high school classrooms and into the city’s intersections. They traipsed through the city’s center, a mélange that includes a giant nineteenth-century library, a bank-turned-hotel and thousands of handsome brownstones, winding up at the school district building. The marchers included 500 students from the poorer Strawberry Mansion High School, along with a sizable contingent from magnet schools like Masterman and Central.

These kids were not slackers eager to cut class. They were activists committed to defeating the privatization of their schools by Edison Schools Inc., a publicly traded company based in New York that operates more than 136 public schools in twenty-three states.

They partially succeeded. Originally, Pennsylvania Governor Mark Schweiker proposed letting Edison manage the entire public school system’s central administration, along with up to sixty individual schools. But on April 17, a state panel voted to give only twenty city schools to Edison–the rest are to be run by two universities and a range of smaller for-profit and nonprofit educational companies. As the panel conducted its deliberations, the student activists were rallying around the building. Few in the media have picked up on the critical role played by the students–which has been overshadowed in recent weeks by stories about the company’s sliding stock price and desperate (though finally successful) quest for a new infusion of funds.

Early last year, neither the diminished role of Edison nor the protracted battle between the school privatization forces and the high school students seemed likely. At that point, city community groups and parents were supportive of the idea of Edison managing the seventh-largest school district in the country. They imagined Edison might be able to create charter-school-like entities but with more muscle and more fixed curriculum than the typical charter, a potentially expedient way of improving the ailing district, where some textbooks are so old they inform students that one day “man will walk on the moon.” But the faith started to fade in September, after Edison was given $2.7 million to produce a report on the state of the city’s educational system. According to its critics, the report tacitly made the case for Edison’s own management. Using the SAT, a test not typically invoked as a yardstick of the success of urban school districts, Edison claimed the schools had simply been mismanaged, without even mentioning the role of underfunding and urban divestment in creating the system’s ills.

The evidence of underfunding is hard to ignore. For example, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s yearly survey of the schools, in 2001 instructional spending per student in Philly was $4,747. In contrast, in the mainline suburb of Radnor, instructional spending per student was $9,120. As for teacher salaries, Philly’s instructors topped out at $62,600, while suburban districts paid as high as $79,371.

When Edison attempted, with the full backing of the state’s governor, to win a contract for management of the school system in fall 2001, the company was derided by many Philadelphians, who felt insulted by the out-of-town educators denigrating their children’s scholastic performance to demonstrate the need for their own services. Parents also detected an alliance of state and corporate power against Philadelphia dwellers, a familiar dynamic in Pennsylvania. Schoolteachers, too, voiced worry about whether they would get to keep their contracts under privatization–which they have–and fear about a new Edison curriculum that would be too corporate and one-size-fits-all to fit individual students’ learning needs. School employees and their labor unions, faced with the prospect of job losses because of the privatization, also rallied to the cause. Their case against the company revolved around the spotty record of Edison schools in places like Baltimore. They also raised questions about whether a public school system should be run by a privately owned company at all, especially at a historical moment marked by an uncertain stock market and massive corporate scandals. Local journalists even dubbed the messy takeover plans “Edron.”

But despite the widespread anti-Edison sentiment, the most powerful opponents of the takeover were and continue to be those most affected by it–the students.

“The students have provided the spark for opposition,” says Paul Socolar, editor of Public School Notebook, an independent quarterly newspaper about the schools. “The student actions have been the most visible and the loudest, and have had a real consistency.”

The public high school students who continue to oppose Edison do so on two main grounds. First, they see it as part of the larger corporate culture that considers young people, and young people of color in particular, just a demographic to be exploited for profit. Second, they see it as the final stage of high schools’ longstanding plan to increase policing of students, with measures like metal detectors and security guards.

“I don’t have a price tag, and my education shouldn’t be for profit,” said student activist leader Day Augustine, 18, who attends West Philadelphia High School.

“Do I want to learn that one plus one equals Pepsi?” he added.

“Students are not property.”

Ashley Smith, 16, a sophomore with a headful of cherry-red braids, expressed similar sentiments: “A company running a school can only really teach you how to work for a corporation,” she said. “I don’t want to work for someone’s corporation.”

When I visited Philadelphia this winter, Ashley and Day sat in a group of fifty teen activists at the headquarters of the Student Union, a nonprofit group devoted to school reform and youth activism that holds weekly meetings. The teen members sat harem-scarem, some on chairs, some on the floor near emptied pizza boxes. They were discussing further student responses to the threat of school privatization. The student activists evenly divided up into arty white teens in postpunk clothes, fingerless arm-length gloves made from cut-up sleeves of shirts, and more conservatively dressed African-American kids, hair dyed the occasional shade of blonde. A male activist arrived with his toddler son and sat next to a female activist just a couple of years younger but with a much more teenager-like mien, multipiercings and a radial tire belt. One girl was giving her friend a new set of cornrows, and another girl was giving a boy a friendly massage.

“Why are schools being privatized?” Eric Braxton, 26, one of the Student Union’s three adult organizers, asked the group.

Hands shot up.

“They are trying to set up a franchise,” said one teen. “Education as a franchise, like Burger King.”

“Because they are preparing us for prison,” one boy joked. The kids laughed but also looked uncomfortable. The students often compared public schools to prisons, with fear in their voices mixing with bravado. In conversation, they extended the metaphor of the prison to the Edison schools, where classes would be taught from mass-produced scripts by teachers responsible to a home office, with students potentially having to walk in straight lines down hallways in single file, hands at their sides or behind their backs, halls divided by yellow lines like highways.

(According to Edison Schools Inc., school uniforms and walks are instituted on a school-by-school basis and not as a blanket policy. Both exist not to police students, according to Edison, but to promote “core values” like respect and order.)

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.

“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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