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Paul Robeson High School Students in New York Campaign Against Closing, 2009-2011
Paul Robeson High School opened in Brooklyn, New York, 1984, as a replacement for the closed Alexander Hamilton High School. The school board’s vision for the new Robeson High School focused primarily on decreasing the dropout rate. To ensure this, the board replaced most of the Hamilton teachers with new ones and created a new application process for students. At first, Robeson did see an increase in the graduation rate, earning it recognition in The New York Times. However, in 2004, the graduation rate began to slowly decrease. In 2006, when the nearby Prospect Heights High School closed, leaving many of its students to transfer to Robeson, violence increased and the graduation rate decreased. Closure of surrounding schools forced Robeson to take in more students. In 2006 Robeson had a capacity for 1,000 students but the school district forced the school to accept 1,500 students.
In 2009, when rumors spread that Robeson would be phased out, students and teachers rallied on 15 December 2009 with the marching band playing on the front steps of Robeson. Students also created a club called Robeson Unite, which provided an online and offline forum for students to share memories, art, and thoughts about the school.
In 2010, a study published by The New School reported that many of the transfer students at Robeson were older than their classmates in the same grade and had just come home from jails or juvenile detention centers. Teachers had not been trained to meet the needs of these students. The graduation rate had decreased to 46.4 percent (21.7 points below the national average). On 1 February 2011, the city’s Department of Education voted to begin a four year project that would lead to the complete closing of Paul Robeson High School.
While they could no longer appeal the Department’s decision, students at Paul Robeson High School revived their campaign to keep their school open and end “The privatization of the school system, budget cuts, lack of appropriate leadership, malicious closings/phasing out of schools against the community's wishes, cell phone policies, overcrowded classes and abuse of safe schools, and over policing of schools and criminalizing their youths.” Students directed their concerns at Mayor Bloomberg and argued that closing Robeson would put further strain on other city schools because they would not have enough resources to support an influx of transfer students. Robeson students argued that, because of the transfers, the school would suffer academically and be forced to close, requiring the transfer of its students to other schools in a continuous cycle of overpopulation and closing.
After police pepper-sprayed Occupy Wall Street Protesters in September of 2011, Occupy Wall Street called for a national day of protest on May Day (1 May 2012). Occupy encouraged everyone who identified as “the 99 percent” (non-wealthy citizens) to participate. Occupy’s call to action inspired Robeson High students to organize a protest as part of the May Day Actions.
In April 2012, students who identified themselves as “Student Leadership” released a video online listing their concerns and demands and encouraged members of the community to join them in a walk out on May Day. The video showed a group of twenty African-American Students standing in a classroom. One male student stood in front of everyone and read an open letter to New York City. The concerns included, “the privatization of [the] school system, budget cuts, over-policing of [the schools], and criminalizing [the] youth.” At the end of the letter, he announced that they would stage a peaceful protest, a teach in and other non violent events for teenagers, and he encouraged the rest of the city to join in support. The student leaders also cited the murder of Trayvon Martin, connecting the racism of the school closings to the government’s response to Martin’s murder.
Robeson students also created a Facebook event, encouraging other Brooklyn and New York City schools to join in their May Day walk-out. While the facebook event page was a platform for Robeson students to share information about the walk-out, some teachers posted on the page, discouraging students from participating in the walk-out. One teacher, Sydney King, posted on the page, “while I stand behind the idea….I hope my students come to school….we are in the business of giving power here, rather than taking it away” implying that skipping classes to protest would amount to taking away the power of education.
While students were the primary organizers of the protest, Occupy Wall Street activists and members of Coalition for Public Education (CPE) supported the students’ efforts. Sam Anderson of the CPE, also a founding father of the Black Panther Party, spoke to Robeson students before the walk-out, encouraging them to push community members to take the Board of Education out of the Mayor’s control.
At noon on 1 May 2011, fifty Robeson students, forty students from other schools (including Brooklyn Tech), teachers and Brooklyn community members participated in a walk-out and then marched two-and-a-half miles from Robeson High to Fort Greene Park. Students acted as marshals during the march and walk-out. Police officers assisted protestors by stopping traffic. Students held signs that read “We Are Students, Not Statistics,” and “Education is not a commodity” and chanted “Robeson, Robeson. Education is under attack. What do we do? Stand up fight back!”
At Fort Greene Park, the students led a teach-in, where they explained their goals and the current problems with the Brooklyn school system. The school Principal suspended each of the fifty Robeson students who participated in the walkout. Despite the closing, Robeson Unite applied for and received a grant from the city to paint a mural that showcased the history of Paul Robeson High School.