Greg Pratt reports from the Southwest Detroit Freedom School

A few days ago, I posted something here on the site about a mass walkout that took place last week at Western International High School in Southwest Detroit. As you may recall, several hundred students left their classes, demanding an end to the seemingly-endless cutbacks that are adversely affecting their educational opportunities. Well, the students who walked out, many of whom were expelled for having participated in the initial protest, have now created a school of their own, in Clark Park, called the Southwest Detroit Freedom School. Their objective, it would seem, is to create for themselves the kind of nurturing environment they haven’t been able to find within a criminally-underfunded public school system of Detroit. And, as you might expect, this vision is resonating with progressive adults across the state, who want to help them in this quest to build a school from the ground up that offers relevant, compelling, hands-on coursework that awakens their curiosity and passion. Among those to drive out on Monday, in hopes of helping, was a a contingent of supporters from Ypsilanti. What follows is a report from Greg Pratt, who organized the trip.

First, here’s some context. This video was shot three years ago outside Western International High School in Southwest Detroit, after a meeting in which Detroit’s Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, refused to reverse course and reconsider the reassignment of popular Principal, Rebecca Luna. Bobb had, as you may recall, just prior to that meeting, announced that, in an effort to contain costs, 49 public schools in Detroit would be closed, and 900 teachers and staff would be fired, including 33 principals.

And, now, after almost three years of Emergency Manager rule, the students are walking out.

I am in awe. The students at Western International High School in Detroit, and those who joined them from Southwestern High, are showing us how to do it.

They’re showing us how to reclaim the commons, and start taking ownership over our public spaces, our education, and our lives. They walked out, as student Raychel Gafford has said in their press materials, to fight “for a quality education for us at Western, and at all DPS schools.”

These student are not the only members of our community who have had it with autocratic government officials telling them there is no solution to the crisis but to continue the cutting of services and the limitation of rights. But they’re the first, that I can recall, who have taken the leap, and opted out of the corrupt system. And there’s much that we can learn from them.

What the students add to our collective response to this creeping totalitarian that is taking over our urban municipalities, is a sense of agency and empowerment. They’re demanding that the assault on Democracy end now, and that people regain control over their community resources.

I cried as I watched the video that these students produced, documenting their walkout. Take a look again, and watch how Gafford calls for her fellow students to come out of the school and join them in the streets. It’s truly inspiring.

The students are showing the way. And I intend to follow their lead.

I showed up at 11:30 AM on Monday, at the Freedom School rain site (an after-school community facility). Raychel Gafford and Freddie Burse, both students at Western, were getting off the air with Craig Fahle on WDET FM. There were about 15-20 adults there, and only a few students. They’d made the decision to postpone the first class of the day, in order accommodate the radio show. The morning, we’d heard, had been spent preparing. A media literacy workshop had been held at 8:30, in preparation for the interview with Fahle at 11:00. And, it’s a good thing they prepped. Fahle ended the interview by grilling them about how they expect to solve the budget issue to keep Southwestern and other DPS schools open. They answered his questions and added information, about the disparity between athletic funding and funding for school materials and new books, for example. When asked if they will walk out again, Raychel said, “We are not giving up this fight. We have a list of demands. Those demands will be met to whatever extent we have to take.” You can listen to the entire interview here.

The day, from then on, went really well, with students choosing, among other things, to learn about the history of hip hop in Detroit, and how to refine and expand upon their song, “10:55.” They also learned about the history of Freedom Schools in Mississippi and the similarities between what their walkout and the walkout in 1966 at Northern High School in Detroit.

The workshop on the history of Freedom Schools was facilitated by Stephen Ward. Stephen talked with the students about the history of Freedom Schools in the South as a means of reclaiming, and directly engaging in the education process. The primary difference between a Freedom School and our current version of school, according to Ward, is that, in a Freedom School, all community members involve themselves in all aspects of the learning process (creating curriculum, creating knowledge, teaching, learning).

Having observed for a day, I’d say the students and their adult community supporters are still in a “capacity-building” stage. That is to say, the students, community members, and outside supporters, like myself, are learning how to build power, share and create common knowledge, and take back education from the legislators, lobbyists and business leaders who are presently foisting this scheme upon us, like it’s our only choice. (note: One of their 29 demands is the removal of the Emergency Manager to give control of schools back to the Detroit School Board.)

The students’ suspensions end on Wednesday. Will they go back to school and play by the rules? That remains to be seen. Regardless, we will continue to build bridges from Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. What is happening in Detroit is not a far cry from what students at Ann Arbor’s Roberto Clemente are experiencing. Information needs to be shared, and alliances need to be built across our communities.

I know many of you want to come and learn with the students, facilitate classes and help them stay on track in their studies. All the classes they want, however, are currently full, with plenty of teachers to support them. That said, they are keeping the Freedom School open to the public for support, and they’ve welcomed us to join them as they build it. In the meantime, we can quickly and directly help them by calling the DPS administrators, who need to know that we have the students’ backs.

Here is the list of individuals who need to have their phone lines flooded with calls of support for the students. First, however, the students are asking that we echo the following demands during our calls:

1) To have all suspensions removed
2) To keep public schools in Detroit open
3) To demand a seat at the table for students when decisions are being made about their futures, and their schools

Roy Roberts, Emergency Manager for DPS
Phone: 313-870-3772
FAX: 313-870-3726

Steve Wasko, DPS Chief Communications Officer
Phone: 313-873-4892
FAX: 313-873-4565

Rebeca Luna, DPS Assistant Superintendent (Directly over Western Int’l HS)
Phone: 313-873-7966

Karen Ridgeway, DPS Superintendent of Academics
Phone: 313-576-0050
FAX: 313-873-6446

And, finally, here’s a message from the Freedom School that was sent to supporters on their email list, concerning their plans to celebrate the one-week anniversary of the walkout with a party at 5:30 PM on Wednesday, at Clark Park. I am going out there and can take 3-4 with me. If people are interested, we can set up a carpool page on Facebook to coordinate rides from Ypsi/Arbor… If you do decide to come, be sure to bring food, blankets, etc.

So, how about it?

And, here’s their message.

Thank you for your interest in helping with our Southwest Detroit Freedom School (SWDFS).

Sign our petition.

Right now, we are asking supporters to FLOOD THE LINES (and emails) of DPS officials… TELL 5 OF YOUR FRIENDS TO DO THE SAME!!!

SWDFS classes are full, at least until the duration of our suspensions this week, but we will be looking for more teachers once we decide on a schedule to continue Freedom School beyond our suspension period. You can still join us at Clark Park Tuesday and Wednesday – your presence is appreciated.

Thanks again you for your time & support.

SWD Freedom School

Wednesday (May 2, 2012)
Class Starts at 10:55am
Lunch at 1:15pm
5:30 p.m. – EVERYONE IS WELCOME to celebrate the one week anniversary of the walkouts!! Bring FOOD, blankets, and your :-)

[note: The image above appears with the permission of photographer Erik Howard.]

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  1. Edward
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    While this is a great, and inspiring project, I think everyone would agree that it’s not a viable solution in the long term. We can’t educate all of our young people through volunteer initiatives alone. We need for our public education system to work. While I’m 100% supportive of these initiatives in Clark Park, I think it’s important to note that there are 100s of schools in the area, all of which are suffering from the same cutbacks. Kids everywhere are suffering. I don’t say this to diminish the work being done by activists in Southwest, which is helping to raise awareness, but we need to keep in mind that a more sustainable solution needs to be found, one which involves funding our public schools.

  2. Anonymous Mike
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I’d elect Gafford to the Detroit Public School Board in a heartbeat.

  3. anonymous
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    The sad thing is, this is exactly what the Republicans want — communities coming together to educate their kids without the use of tax dollars.

  4. Mr. X
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Closer to home, it looks like more school closings may be on the horizon. The following comes from Maria Cotera.

    Dear friends of Ypsi schools,

    On Monday, our Board of Ed. representatives attended a budget presentation that focused on the Administration’s recommendations for the revised Deficit Elimination Plan. As you know, because of accounting “anomalies” the deficit that we thought we had, ballooned into a much larger number (from 4 million to about 9 million projected). The administration’s revised plan calls for more school closures in 2013-2014. There is a budget meeting tonight at which the Board is expected to vote on this new DEP proposal.

    Apparently, at Monday’s meeting, the board was not given materials in advance so they had very little idea of what to expect, and they have received only some of the materials so far, so its not clear how they can offer their input on a plan that seems to have been decided on already. This has become standard operating procedure in this district and it has to stop.

    I feel very strongly that we should be at this meeting tonight to represent the district’s key stakeholders: families. What are the implications of more school closures for the overall health of the district? How do these plans for our DEP interface with the plans to consolidate with Willow Run? I am really, really tired of dealing with an administration that constantly operates in a reactive mode. We need to be there and to voice our concerns about the future of our district, and we may even need to break the rules regarding “community input” time. The meeting is at 6 pm in the administration building (the White House). I will be there.


  5. me
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Clealy Sir, this tells us that the city needs to spend more money on the Water Street Project. That’ll solve all our problems. The politicians promised!

  6. Knox
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure that I understand what you’re getting at, Me. What does this have to do with Water Street?

  7. Meta
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    More on Freedom Schools from Wikipedia:

    Freedom Schools were temporary, alternative free schools for African Americans mostly in the South. They were originally part of a nationwide effort during the Civil Rights Movement to organize African Americans to achieve social, political and economic equality in the United States. The most prominent example of Freedom Schools was in Mississippi in August 1964.

    Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brown case striking down segregated school systems, in the mid-1960s Mississippi still maintained separate and unequal white and “colored” school systems. On average, the state spent $81.66 to educate a white student compared to only $21.77 for a black child. Mississippi was one of only two states in the union that did not have a mandatory education law and many children in rural areas were sent to work in the fields and received little education at all. Even the curriculum was different for white and black. As a typical example, the white school board of Bolivar County mandated that “Neither foreign languages nor civics shall be taught in Negro schools. Nor shall American history from 1860 to 1875 be taught.”

    In late 1963, Charles Cobb, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist, proposed the organization sponsor a network of Freedom Schools. The concept of Freedom Schools had been utilized by educators and activists prior to the summer of 1964 in Boston, New York, and Prince Edward County, Virginia, where public schools were closed in reaction to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision or, in the case of Boston, as acts of protest against discriminatory school conditions.

    The Mississippi Freedom Schools were developed as part of the 1964 Freedom Summer civil rights project, a massive effort that focused on voter registration drives and educating Mississippi students for social change. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO)—an umbrella civil rights organization of activists and funds drawn from SNCC, CORE, NAACP, and SCLC—among other organizations, coordinated Freedom Summer.

    The project was essentially a statewide voter registration campaign, and the framers called for one thousand volunteers to assist in the undertaking. Activists made plans to conduct a parallel Democratic primary election , because the systematic exclusion of black voters resulted in all-white delegations to presidential primaries. These efforts culminated in the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Both the official delegation and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party went to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

    In December 1963, during planning for the upcoming Freedom Summer project, Charles Cobb proposed a network of “Freedom Schools” that would foster political participation among Mississippi elementary and high school students, in addition to offering academic courses and discussions. Activists organizing the Freedom Summer project accepted Cobb’s proposal and in March 1964 organized a curriculum planning conference in New York under the sponsorship of the National Council of Churches. Spelman College history professor Staughton Lynd was appointed Director of the Freedom School program.

    Over the course of Freedom Summer, more than 40 Freedom Schools were set up in black communities throughout Mississippi. The purpose was to try to end political displacement of African Americans by encouraging students to become active citizens and socially involved within the community. Over 3,000 African American students attended these schools in the summer of 1964. Students ranged in age from small children to the very elderly with the average approximately 15 years old. Teachers were volunteers, most of whom were college students themselves.

    The Freedom Schools were conceptualized with both political and educational objectives. Freedom School teachers would educate elementary and high school students to become social change agents that would participate in the ongoing Civil Rights Movement, most often in voter registration efforts. The curriculum adopted was divided into seven core areas that analyzed the social, political, and economic context of precarious race relations and the Civil Rights Movement. Leadership development was encouraged, in addition to more traditional academic skills. The education at Freedom Schools was student-centered and socially relevant. Curriculum and instruction was based on the needs of the students, discussion among students and teachers (rather than lecturing) was encouraged, and curriculum planners encouraged teachers to base instruction on the experiences of their students.

    Read more:

  8. Alice
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Did anyone else notice that the displaced principal that everyone was so sorry to see forced out of Western in the first video (Rebeca Luna) is now the Assistant Superintendent of Detroit Public Schools? How is it that she went from defending her students three years ago to helping orchestrate this attack against them now? It’s fascinating what people are willing to do for a good paycheck.

  9. Greg Pratt
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Meta for adding info re: Freedom Schools. Here is some background info for the story about the Northern High School walkout in Detroit 1966

    And look at what the Detroit Mosaic Theatre just happens to be
    presenting in a couple of weeks:

    And also check out this:

  10. Greg Pratt
    Posted May 2, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Raychel Gafford put her words here:

    please read them :)

  11. Posted May 2, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Greg, I just heard that you gave a copy of Ypsilanti Vampire May Day to Raychel Gafford. That’s incredibly cool.

  12. Posted May 7, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

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