This evening, a group formed by students in response to the state takeover of the Little Rock School District (LRSD) marched from the Department of Education building to LRSD headquarters on Markham Street. About 100 people turned out for the protest, most of whom were students.
The Little Rock School District Student Association (LRSDSA) is “dedicated to empowering students and making their voices heard,” said Hannah Burdette, a Parkview High senior who is one of the founders of the group. Burdette was one of the students who addressed the State Board of Education on Jan. 28th, at the meeting at which takeover was decided.
“We want to make it known that the students of LRSD are united in one body and willing to speak out for their education,” she said. “Also, there’s a lot of student discontent about the recent state takeover of the LRSD” and the dissolution of its board.
However, she continued, “our intent with the LRSDA is to work with whoever it is in charge of student education, so whether that’s the LRSD board or the Department of Education, our intent is to work with them and make student voices known.”
AnDrea Hargrove, another student organizer, told the crowd, “I want to let you all know that this started because of the takeover, but it won’t stop after the takeover.”
Several members of the former school board participated, including Joy Springer and Jim Ross; they briefly addressed the crowd but mostly left the stage to the kids. At least a dozen students spoke, including kids from Hall, Central, J.A. Fair, Parkview and a former McClellan student. A few middle schoolers spoke as well.
Many adults involved in the district will undoubtedly dismiss these students with a pat and a wink, and the LRSD’s detractors will be quick to assume that they’re being manipulated by their parents or teachers. But that’d be a mistake. True, the Little Rock kids trying to spark a movement in their schools are new at this, and sometimes their points of contention are a bit vague, their rhetoric a little too cinematic in its tone — but that’s not exactly unusual in what’s considered legitimate Arkansas politics. Some of the speakers tonight gave thoughtful, informed commentary about their district, and they should be brought into whatever decision making process emerges out of the takeover.
Maybe the LRSDSA will fizzle, and maybe it won’t. The right student leaders in the right time and place can be incomparably powerful in shaping public opinion. Think of SNCC (or for that matter, the Little Rock Nine).
Deja Taylor, an 11th grader from J.A. Fair, lamented the psychological effect of telling students their school or district is failing. “If you asked the average JA Fair kid what school they went to, I’ll bet you an A on my report card they wouldn’t tell you with a lot of school pride,” she said, “and if you knew how much I love As on my report card, you’ll get how rare a proud War Eagle is at JA Fair High. Who would be proud to go to a school with such a bad reputation? I know most of you out here have heard the saying ‘dont judge a book by its cover.’ Well, I am telling you don’t judge a school by its test scores and what the media portrays. Likewise, don’t judge a district by what the media portrays. We are united, and we are a community.”
Sally Goldman, a Central High student, said “recently, we watched our education be bought by the Walton Foundation and by the Boston Consulting Group in a process that was not democratic. I’m happy we’re all here exercising our first amendment rights and standing up for our school district. However, I want to remind everyone that this is just the beginning — we cannot stop at just this one march. We have to continue to organize, rally, and speak together. And we have to make sure that our coalition is not just made up of white, middle class students from Central and Parkview, because that’s not the LRSD.” (Tonight’s crowd, on the contrary, was refreshingly diverse — white, black and Latino.)
Luis Alvarado, a Hispanic student from Hall, said “Hall High is not all about scores.” He also said it wasn’t fair that Hall — which has an exceptionally high percentage of ESL students because of its “Newcomer’s Center” — is judged for low test scores on the same scale as other schools that have fewer ESL kids.
“[ESL students] take the same test as everybody, and what does that tell us?” he asked. “They can’t make the same score as a regular student — they don’t know English!”
Jeana Simmons, a Parkview senior, said she became concerned about the takeover because she’s worried about the teachers she’s grown close to. “With a lot of my teachers, I see how they’re so in love with their job, and how happy they are to be a part of our education … and to see them be so distraught about the takeover, and to see them be so discombobulated about what’s going to happen — it hurts me, because these are smart, educated people.” Like most students, she also mentioned testing. “I’ve been in the system of No Child Left Behind, and it’s just not right … We’re just a test question. We’re just a circle on a standardized test.”
Here are a few more pictures from the event: