CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.
Finding a Voice Through Student Communities
Last week, students from the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester and students from Orchard Gardens K-8 school in Roxbury sat in a restorative circle to discuss the harms our communities have experienced this year. At the McCormack, our school community was told in October that we would be closed, our students and staff dispersed, and our building renovated and then given to another school community, which would bid for it. In my students’ words, the building would be “made nice, but not for us”. In turn, I had taught them the vocabulary of eviction and gentrification, the words that came to mind in the emotional way they described their experience of the closure announcement.
For students at Orchard Gardens, harm had taken a different form. Orchard Gardens Pilot School (OGPS) is located off Melnea Cass Boulevard, which is the geographic center of Boston’s opioid crisis. People struggling with addiction traverse the school property on a regular basis. A sharps collection box across the street, in plain view from classrooms, creates an additional reason for users to walk through. A few months ago, a young child was pricked by a dirty needle left on the playground, and had to be given a months-long course of post-exposure HIV prophylaxis.
In the wake of McCormack Middle School's closure announcement, the hierarchy between teachers and students at our school effectively vanished. We were a community under attack, and every mind, every voice, was of more value than ever. Students attended organizing meetings with adults, and built their own leadership group that engaged in activism and advocacy. They made petitions and joined Twitter. They spoke up at School Committee with a grace and passion that brought people in the room to tears. One even hacked the Boston Public Schools (BPS) parent listserv and managed to send a survey about school closures to every BPS family with an email address in the city. Once organized, this group was hungry to continue their activism in a variety of capacities, working to build stronger unity between student groups in our school through restorative circles and empathy interviews.
When I heard the students of OGPS speak at school committee on the night of the West Roxbury Education Complex closure vote, I sensed an opportunity for these young people with powerful voices to meet, share, and organize together. I reached out to their teacher, Ms. McGlone, and we worked together to get our students into the same place at the same time. Outside of that organizing, the students did the rest.
One student, Leidy developed circle questions to better understand the OGPS students’ experience with the opioid crisis. Others, Amanj and Yahil, took video. Quiana and Davyahna were thoughtful participants in circle, posing deep questions only after taking time to listen carefully to what their peers were expressing. And the OGPS students were similarly attentive, inquisitive, and empathic, wanting to understand what it was like to be told the school was closing, what it was like to fight back, what it was like to win concessions.
What struck me as I listened was the deep concern the young people voiced for each other, and their shared sense of of being invisible to decision-makers in our city. My students couldn’t understand why our city would tear apart their community, evict them from their school, without any regard for the human beings who make up our community. Orchard Gardens students struggled to understand why a sharps box sits in plain view of their playground, why they’ve had to shut down traffic to get their playground cleaned and get increased security measures put in place to ensure their safety. In both groups’ voices, what I heard expressed was a need for greater proximity between our youth and decision-makers, for—as Ayanna Pressley so eloquently puts it—the people closest to the pain to be infinitely closer to the power.
I asked Leidy to reflect on what she learned from our visit to Orchard Gardens, and she told me, “My visit to Orchard Gardens was eye opening. It broke my heart because these kids who were young knew what was going around them. Also how they spoke about the situation was amazing. They knew that eventually they would leave the school but they were fighting for their community to be a better place. Talking to them taught me to care about their struggles, and to also be grateful that the problem wasn’t happening at our school. It taught me that being a community is very important, and that we should take care of each other in times of need.”
Our young people know that stronger community and deeper empathy are the only ways we will actually make progress towards solving the immense challenges we face. As an adult who cares about them and guides their learning, it’s my job to create the opportunities for that relationship-building to happen. It’s the job of other adults in our community, especially those who wield political power, to listen carefully to what our students say, and to plan with their needs at the center.