How a Few Philly Students Staged a Walkout

Tuesday's protest began, not surprisingly perhaps, with a modest online message

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AxisPhilly.org
    Clockwise from top: Kelechi Ekwerike, Samantha Ho, Teyin Tseng, Spencer Nguyen, Maureen Smith, Belal Shami

    It began, not surprisingly perhaps, with a modest online message.

    About two weeks ago, school district officials had announced, once again, a serious hole in the District’s budget and had laid out, once again, severe cuts that would be implemented if a roughly $300 million hole wasn’t filled — this time invoking layoffs and cuts to programs, especially arts and extracurricular.

    And as students pondered cuts to their favorite programs, the irony that last Friday would mark “Teacher Appreciation Day,” was not lost upon them.

    Before news of the proposed cuts reached them, says Teyin Tseng (upper right), a member of the student council at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, “Our plan was to see how much money we had and see if we could buy flowers for every teacher.”

    “But then the budget [was unveiled] — and we decided to do this.”

    So, on Friday, another CAPA student, Maureen Smith (lower center), created a new Facebook page: Silenced Students March — announcing a plan by her and some of her classmates to protest the threatened cuts. She opened with something of a rallying call:

    “As students we are fed up and want to be heard. Its OUR education and WE should have a say in it. TUESDAY May 7th is teachers appreciation day, we are organizing a march to 440 North Broad Street, which is the school district building. Depending on your school’s location you can choose a meeting area and then proceed to march to 440.We will all be meeting there by 4:30. There is strength in numbers.”

    The response — recorded online in blow-by-blow Facebook posts — was immediate, enthusiastic, and complex as any overnight organizing effort.Talking points were discussed; a deliberate effort to attract media and control the message was conceived.

    And there was, as there is in any organizing effort, vigorous debate over tactics and message: When some students announced a planned walkout; other students objected, worried the organized disobedience would undermine their credibility as a group — a debate which continues as some students contemplate a walkout tomorrow.

    A system was worked out: each school’s protest contingent should nominate  a representative to contact.

    “We have a huge network,” explained Tseng outside the building. “We all called each other, and we got a lot of schools to join.”

     

    “I was contacted by Teyin over here,” said Belal Shami (lower left), “and he told me he needed my help. My role was to gather people from Franklin Learning Center and get them to the protest. … I brought roughly 35 people.”

    In a stretch of years in which there has been no shortage of protests outside 440 N. Broad, Tuesday nonetheless marked the first time many of these students had ever done anything of the sort. And their motivations often went beyond their personal welfare.

    “People are saying, ‘You’re a Senior,’ why are you here?’ Well, I have friends that I’ve made this year in lower grades,” said Kelechi Ekwerike (upper left), for whom this protest was his first. “For their education to be cut short, truncated, I will not stand for that. And if this carries on next year, if nothing is done, they [the School District] will not hear the end of it.”

    “The sense in my class is a little bit like we’re the last survivors on the Titanic,” is how Samantha Ho (upper center), a junior at Masterman High School, put it. “We survived. But I have a cousin who’s going to be first year at Masterman —  I can’t really imagine that place without extracurricular activities. That’s where people connect.”

    “My little brother, my sister — I don’t care about myself,” said Spencer Nguyen (lower right) from the Palumbo Academy of Art. “This is for future generations.”

    About two hours after the protest had started, a small knot of these students remained outside school headquarters, huddled as they debriefed and planned for whatever comes next.

    “I’m more than happy with the turnout,” acknowledged Facebook event creator Maureen Smith. “It really does speak volumes, that young people can make a difference.”


    This story was reported through a news coverage partnership between NBC10.com and AxisPhilly.org