WORCESTER, Mass. – Half a dozen local students, representing a coalition across the city’s schools, gathered at the Irving Street headquarters of Worcester Public Schools Nov. 2 to deliver a transcript of the “Schools we Deserve” dialogue to school superintendent Maureen Binienda.
The dialogue, which took place in late July, brought together about 50 young people from across the city’s public high schools. There, they discussed things that they liked or that bothered them about their education, as well as offered concrete suggestions for change. Some of the comments were policy specific – removing the controversial ban on mobile phones, ending a policy against hoodies – and some were broad, such as taking greater account of the voices of students during the schools’ strategic planning process.
A loose coordinating committee of eight students from several high schools gathered the suggestions together into a “transcript,” and it was this that was delivered to Binienda, who accepted through a representative. The organizers attempted to get each member of the school committee to sign off on the transcript as a vow to keep the voices of students in the conversation, however all declined, mostly citing the proximity of city elections, and a desire to avoid anything that looked like political posturing.
Ohemaa Pipim, a sophomore at South High Community School, read a prepared statement from the students,
highlighting some of the most prominent issues in the dialogue.
“The first,” Pipim said, “is the cellphone policy.” She explained that students found it nonsensical that smart phones are banned, while schools cannot afford the computers needed to search for information. On the cellphone ban, she also argued that simply outlawing the devices doesn’t teach young people when to use them and when not to.
“Schools are supposed to be the places that actually educates students on not only how to do long division or how to write history papers, but also how to go about our lives beyond high school, which we call the real world,” she said.
Transportation was another key issue, as students cited a lack of access to transit as causing them to be unable to participate in extracurricular activities. Additionally, Pipim said, there is a feeling amongst public school youth in the city that they are in “prison like” schools, allowed to go to the bathroom only at certain times.
The “hoodie policy,” which bans students in some high schools from wearing hoodies, is topic of concern. Pipim, still speaking on behalf of the group, said young people feel criminalized, because administrators have banned an article of clothing on the basis that it could be used to hide a weapon. This, she said, added to the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline that operates “every day” in Worcester.
Since the July discussion, the young people have continued organizing. Petitions were organized at South High and Worcester Technical High School. The petition at Tech, on the cell phone ban, garnered 500 signatures, and the one at South, regarding the hoodie policy, reached 200, said Nakefa Kabati and Kassandra Quinlan, of those two schools respectively.
The petitions, however, were torpedoed by the administration, the students reported. The South High petition drive was ended when the administration threatened to “cancel Homecoming.” While the festivities were saved due to intervention by supportive teachers, the petitions were discarded.
The group reported differing attitudes amongst teachers and administrators, with some acting hostile and others supportive. They were hopeful that the school committee might, after elections are done for this cycle, take up their cause – if pressed.
“We’re going to wait and see what happens,” Quinlan said, responding to a question on what they will do next.
In the meanwhile, she said, the students were going to continue organizing for their voices to be heard.