Greg Pratt reports from the Southwest Detroit Freedom Schools

May 15, 2012

Photo courtesy Erik Howard
 By Greg Pratt
 Read original the blog here.

A few days ago, I posted something here on the site about a mass walkout that took place last week at Western International High School in Southwest Detroit. As you may recall, several hundred students left their classes, demanding an end to the seemingly-endless cutbacks that are adversely affecting their educational opportunities. Well, the students who walked out, many of whom were expelled for having participated in the initial protest, have now created a school of their own, in Clark Park, called the Southwest Detroit Freedom School. Their objective, it would seem, is to create for themselves the kind of nurturing environment they haven’t been able to find within a criminally-underfunded public school system of Detroit. And, as you might expect, this vision is resonating with progressive adults across the state, who want to help them in this quest to build a school from the ground up that offers relevant, compelling, hands-on coursework that awakens their curiosity and passion. Among those to drive out on Monday, in hopes of helping, was a a contingent of supporters from Ypsilanti.
What follows is a report from Greg Pratt, who organized the trip.
First, here’s some context. This video was shot three years ago outside Western International High School in Southwest Detroit, after a meeting in which Detroit’s Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, refused to reverse course and reconsider the reassignment of popular Principal, Rebecca Luna. Bobb had, as you may recall, just prior to that meeting, announced that, in an effort to contain costs, 49 public schools in Detroit would be closed, and 900 teachers and staff would be fired, including 33 principals. And, now, after almost three years of Emergency Manager rule, the students are walking out. I am in awe. The students at Western International High School in Detroit, and those who joined them from Southwestern High, are showing us how to do it.
They’re showing us how to reclaim the commons, and start taking ownership over our public spaces, our education, and our lives. They walked out, as student Raychel Gafford has said in their press materials, to fight “for a quality education for us at Western, and at all DPS schools.” These student are not the only members of our community who have had it with autocratic government officials telling them there is no solution to the crisis but to continue the cutting of services and the limitation of rights. But they’re the first, that I can recall, who have taken the leap, and opted out of the corrupt system. And there’s much that we can learn from them.
What the students add to our collective response to this creeping totalitarian that is taking over our urban municipalities, is a sense of agency and empowerment. They’re demanding that the assault on Democracy end now, and that people regain control over their community resources. I cried as I watched the video that these students produced, documenting their walkout. Take a look again, and watch how Gafford calls for her fellow students to come out of the school and join them in the streets. It’s truly inspiring. The students are showing the way. And I intend to follow their lead. I showed up at 11:30 AM on Monday, at the Freedom School rain site (an after-school community facility). Raychel Gafford and Freddie Burse, both students at Western, were getting off the air with Craig Fahle on WDET FM. There were about 15-20 adults there, and only a few students. They’d made the decision to postpone the first class of the day, in order accommodate the radio show. The morning, we’d heard, had been spent preparing. A media literacy workshop had been held at 8:30, in preparation for the interview with Fahle at 11:00. And, it’s a good thing they prepped. Fahle ended the interview by grilling them about how they expect to solve the budget issue to keep Southwestern and other DPS schools open. They answered his questions and added information, about the disparity between athletic funding and funding for school materials and new books, for example. When asked if they will walk out again, Raychel said, “We are not giving up this fight. We have a list of demands. Those demands will be met to whatever extent we have to take.”
You can listen to the entire interview here.
The day, from then on, went really well, with students choosing, among other things, to learn about the history of hip hop in Detroit, and how to refine and expand upon their song, “10:55.” They also learned about the history of Freedom Schools in Mississippi and the similarities between what their walkout and the walkout in 1966 at Northern High School in Detroit. The workshop on the history of Freedom Schools was facilitated by Stephen Ward. Stephen talked with the students about the history of Freedom Schools in the South as a means of reclaiming, and directly engaging in the education process. The primary difference between a Freedom School and our current version of school, according to Ward, is that, in a Freedom School, all community members involve themselves in all aspects of the learning process (creating curriculum, creating knowledge, teaching, learning). Having observed for a day, I’d say the students and their adult community supporters are still in a “capacity-building” stage. That is to say, the students, community members, and outside supporters, like myself, are learning how to build power, share and create common knowledge, and take back education from the legislators, lobbyists and business leaders who are presently foisting this scheme upon us, like it’s our only choice. (note: One of their 29 demands is the removal of the Emergency Manager to give control of schools back to the Detroit School Board.) The students’ suspensions end on Wednesday. Will they go back to school and play by the rules? That remains to be seen. Regardless, we will continue to build bridges from Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. What is happening in Detroit is not a far cry from what students at Ann Arbor’s Roberto Clemente are experiencing. Information needs to be shared, and alliances need to be built across our communities. I know many of you want to come and learn with the students, facilitate classes and help them stay on track in their studies. All the classes they want, however, are currently full, with plenty of teachers to support them. That said, they are keeping the Freedom School open to the public for support, and they’ve welcomed us to join them as they build it. In the meantime, we can quickly and directly help them by calling the DPS administrators, who need to know that we have the students’ backs. Here is the list of individuals who need to have their phone lines flooded with calls of support for the students. First, however, the students are asking that we echo the following demands during our calls:
1) To have all suspensions removed
2) To keep public schools in Detroit open
3) To demand a seat at the table for students when decisions are being made about their futures, and their schools
  • Roy Roberts, Emergency Manager for DPS Phone: 313-870-3772 FAX: 313-870-3726 
  • Steve Wasko, DPS Chief Communications Officer Phone: 313-873-4892 FAX: 313-873-4565 
  •  Rebeca Luna, DPS Assistant Superintendent (Directly over Western Int’l HS) Phone: 313-873-7966 
  •  Karen Ridgeway, DPS Superintendent of Academics Phone: 313-576-0050 FAX: 313-873-6446 

And, finally, here’s a message from the Freedom School that was sent to supporters on their email list, concerning their plans to celebrate the one-week anniversary of the walkout with a party at 5:30 PM on May 2, at Clark Park. And, here’s their message. Thank you for your interest in helping with our Southwest Detroit Freedom School (SWDFS).
Sign our petition. Right now, we are asking supporters to FLOOD THE LINES (and emails) of DPS officials… TELL 5 OF YOUR FRIENDS TO DO THE SAME!!! SWDFS classes are full, at least until the duration of our suspensions, but we will be looking for more teachers once we decide on a schedule to continue Freedom School beyond our suspension period.