High School Students Are Taking It to the Streets to Protest Teacher Layoffs

More than 300 New Jersey students are standing up for their laid-off teachers in a visible way.

(Illustration by Lauren Wade)

May 15, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Some New Jersey students are standing up for their laid-off teachers in a visible way.

On Wednesday, more than 300 students at The Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy and Camden High School in Camden, N.J., took to the streets at noon to protest proposed teacher layoffs announced Monday by Camden’s superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard.

“Students from all different student organizations organized this together,” Nala Johnson, an 11th grader at the academy, told NJ.com. “This was completely student organized. We wanted to have a protest after we found out about the layoffs.”

Students from various groups arranged the protest using social media. They held signs that read, “Save Our Educators” and “Save Public Schools.”

Johnson said the teachers were opposed to the protests, but the students didn’t let that stop them.

The New Jersey district is facing sharp cuts, including 241 layoffs of teachers, guidance counselors, and nurses. This follows the downsizing of 94 central-administration employees late last month, and more layoffs could be coming.

Like many school districts in the U.S., the Camden School District isn’t alone in its deep cuts amid budget shortfalls. Hundreds of teacher layoffs are occurring weekly.

This week, the superintendent for the Muscogee County School District in Columbus, Ga., announced that layoffs are part of the slicing to balance next year’s fiscal budget. In Thermal, Calif., the Coachella Valley Unified School Board also announced this week that it will eliminate 28 teacher jobs. In Cleveland, Ohio, administrators have spent weeks evaluating nontenured teachers’ performances, and they plan to let go of nearly 70 and possibly more.

The New Jersey students aren’t alone in their decision to protest.

Last week, in Collegeville, Pa., hundreds of students at Perkiomen Valley High School marched out of school quietly on Friday morning to protest possible budget cuts that could result in several teachers losing their jobs. Such protesting is critical to shaping the future of this country’s public education, says Israel Munoz, a founder of the Chicago Students Union, a student-led organization in Chicago that promotes and protects student rights. He helped to lead the protests last year against that city’s school closures, the largest in U.S. history.

“It’s absolutely imperative that students have a voice in education policy,” Munoz says. “Most of the time, the focus is entirely on the teachers, while the students, who make up the majority of those affected, are often marginalized.”

The student-led protests in New Jersey and Pennsylvania could spread, says Yohuru Williams, a professor of history at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn., who has studied grassroots movements in the U.S., such as the civil rights and black power movements.

“I would not be surprised if we witnessed students across the country taking similar actions akin to those in Camden,” says Williams. “They recognize how important and valuable experienced and dedicated teachers are to the educational process, and they are attempting in the best way they know how to demonstrate that to policy makers. This is ultimately what civic and social studies teachers train students to do. We ask them to think critically about their role in a participatory democracy and to explore ways that they can make a difference.”

Why shouldn’t administrators listen to students, wonders Munoz. After all, they are the ones most affected by budget cuts.

“The rhetoric around public education always revolves around a theme of high expectations for students. Yet policy makers force students to try to meet those high expectations without high, and often times inadequate, amounts of resources,” he notes. “If we truly want to meet those high expectations, then the students need to be listened to. They know what is best for their education, and that is excellent teachers and adequate class sizes. Doing anything else only hurts them.”

Pockets of protests like the one in New Jersey on Wednesday spring up periodically when layoffs, school closures, and budget cuts happen, but Williams thinks more students should realize they have a democratic right to stand up and be heard before such calamities occur.

“We should be applauding the students in Camden the same way we did students in Providence, Rhode Island, Chicago, and a little closer to home in Philadelphia for taking the initiative to speak out and make their voices heard,” Williams says. “Students clearly recognize the budgetary restraints on many districts. One of the most important messages coming out of the Camden protests is that schools cannot survive without the most important resource of all: the human capital represented by their teachers.”