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Rochester City School District students campaign against budget cuts to arts programs, 2010
In the spring and early summer of 2009, the Rochester City School District faced serious budget cuts to its schools. Among the schools to be affected was the magnet School of the Arts (SOTA), one of the highest performing schools in the district, which placed a special emphasis on the inclusion of arts in the student curriculum.
There was a scheduled School Board Meeting to be held regarding the budget cuts on June 10, at which time a vote on whether they were to pass was to take place.
Students throughout the district, but particularly at School of the Arts and Wilson Magnet High School (another high performing school in the district), began organizing a campaign against the budget cuts during the end of the spring semester. Some members of the SOTA chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Student Government (SG), and other students came to the forefront of the project at SOTA. At Wilson, efforts were headed by Wilson Student Government officials.
In anticipation of the scheduled School Board Meeting, the students at SOTA began what they called the "Save Our Arts" campaign on June 5, 2009. That evening, the school's music department was presented with a Grammy award and a $5,000 fund for its strong record of musical performances. At the event, several students staged a silent protest in the lobby of the school, directly outside of the auditorium in which the award was presented. The students covered their mouths with duct tape to symbolize what they wished to convey was the stifling act of cutting arts-related programs. SOTA students imitated this technique in a YouTube protest video related to the same budget-cutting issue two years later, as well.
The preparation for this and subsequent acts of protests took place after school and on social media websites, such as MySpace and Facebook. Students frequently used the SOTA public address system to make general announcements regarding the scheduling of meetings to prepare for protests. These announcements would take place at the end of the day, with full knowledge on the part of the entire faculty and staff of SOTA. Any physical meetings were held in the classroom of a history teacher (who was also a close mentor of several students) after school.
The campaign developed a number of slogans and images, among them the aforementioned duct taped mouths. Students and alumni were asked on the SOTA Alumni Connection website to wear the school colors (black, silver, and white) on the day of the major protest during the awards ceremony. Participants were also encouraged to change their profile pictures on social media websites to an image of the campaign: a pair of scissors with the slogan "Don't Cut Our Teachers!" printed by them. On the day of the major protest, some students wore white t-shirts with this slogan and image printed on them in black. The SOTA Alumni Connection website encouraged school alums to read personalized letters of support and gratitude for their experience of the arts during the major protest.
Four days after the Grammy award ceremony, on June 9, 2009, somewhere from 200 to 300 students marched from the front entrance of SOTA in downtown Rochester's Neighborhood of the Arts to City Hall. The students marched down Prince Street to East Avenue, and then met up with more student protesters from Wilson Magnet High School.
The students held signs reading "Save Our Arts!", "Save Our Teachers", and "Rights, Equity, Arts". Several music students brought drums and other instruments and played music. The students chanted repeatedly "Save our Arts!" Once they had met up with the Wilson students, the entire group of protesters (now accompanied by some media and a few adults, either supportive parents or alums), marched from Hochstein to City Hall, where a rally took place.
Many speeches asked for sympathy from the School Board, while others took on a more angry tone.
There was a lot of news coverage of the June 9th protest, but at the City School Board meeting held the following day, the budget cuts were approved by a vote of 4 to 3. The City Council also approved the cuts with a vote of 7 to 3. The cuts would eliminate 190 teaching positions throughout the district, concentrated mainly in arts-related positions, and about 88 of these teachers would not be re-hirable the following fall.
On June 18, students protested at a City School Board meeting. Although the protests did bring more attention to the issue of school and particularly arts funding, they did not succeed in preventing the budget cuts from being passed.