MLK school walkout protests turnaround plan

Friday at noon, about 75 students burst out the front door of Martin Luther King High School in West Oak Lane, chanting, “Save our school!”

For an hour, they shouted, waved signs at passing cars, talked to reporters and bantered boisterously among themselves.

Now, they’ll wait to see if they’ll be punished.

Students say they organized the walkout to protest the Philadelphia School District’s Renaissance plan, under which King will be turned over to an as-yet-unnamed outside management firm, which will replace at least half the school’s staff by next September.

Demonstrators said they were angry that they weren’t consulted about King’s Renaissance designation, and skeptical about the value of the longer school days and summer classes that will come with it.

“It’s crazy. You want to give us longer days and more hours and new teachers, and [still use] the same curriculum. Just because we’re sitting in class longer, it’s quote-unquote better, but it’s not going to change,” said student Britney Denmark.

 “Most kids don’t want to come to school now. If you give us more days and longer hours, they’re going to drop out,” she said. “I understand they want change. And that change can be for the better. But they’re not doing it the right way.”

 Demonstrators handed out flyers listing four student demands. “NO DECISION should be made without full student awareness,” it read. “WE WANT an improved curriculum that engages us. Longer days don’t improve test scores, BETTER CLASSES DO!” Finally, the flyer called for an end to suspensions for “minor infractions” like uniform violations or “being in the hallway at the wrong time.”

 Several students said they weren’t opposed to the concept of King’s becoming a charter school if that would improve it.

“A charter school would be a good thing. But then again, maybe it wouldn’t,” said Amir Williams. “All we need is good teachers, and we’ll be all right.”

Feeling like lab rats

 And while opinions differed on what exactly the best future for King might be, overall, the feeling was strong among the students that they’d become unwilling participants in a District experiment they neither fully understand nor trust.

 “I don’t like how we’re getting treated like lab rats,” said student Taivon Hudson. “If they want to make it a charter school, keep the teachers that have been working here, working hard for us – we trust them. We know who they are. And they know us. Bring someone new in, and you have to start the whole relationship over again.”

 Word started circulating about the planned walkout earlier this week. Principal James Murray said he was tipped off by students in time to prepare. An anonymous email to media sources announced the walkout on Thursday night, and by Friday morning, three senior district officials were on hand to talk to students about their plans.

 Hudson, a senior, said that he and a handful other student leaders were pulled aside early on Friday to meet with the visiting district staff. (These visitors were later identified by a district spokesperson as Associate Superintendent Penny Nixon, Deputy Chief for Academic Counseling Wilfredo Ortiz, and Assistant Superintendent for High Schools Linda Cliatt-Wayman). Hudson said the group took questions from the students and tried to explain the district’s position.

 In turn, he tried to explain the students’ point of view.

“I asked [Nixon] how she would feel if someone came into her home, that she’d been living in for four years, and changed everything around,” said Hudson. “She said she’d be upset. So why wouldn’t we?”

 The meeting’s final message, Hudson said, was that the Renaissance plan is under way and cannot be stopped. “They’ve already got their minds made up,” Hudson said. “[They] told us that if we walked out there would be repercussions – basically, we’d better not walk out.”

 Still, the walkout went ahead as planned, and within an hour it was finished. Some students returned to the building. Others wandered off in small groups down the streets of the surrounding neighborhood.

Protest or lark?

By that time, the district had already released a statement: “The School District of Philadelphia is absolutely committed to preserving the rights of students to express their opinions about decisions that affect them, but the district does not approve this type of behavior and will hold students accountable for their misconduct.”

District officials say they’ve yet to decide what punishment the demonstrators will face, if any. “That’s something that’s going to be determined,” said district spokesperson Shana Kemp.

Among the factors the District will consider is whether a given student was trying to legitimately protest, or merely taking the opportunity to leave school early, Kemp said. 

 Several student demonstrators said they’d been called at their homes on Thursday night and warned that they could be suspended for walking out. Principal James Murray said that he had reached out to parents about the planned demonstration – “We informed parents of the possibility,” he said – but he would not comment on what repercussions students might face, or how individual cases might be considered.

Kemp said that District officials had nothing to do with any suspension-threatening calls, and suggested that they might be rumors. “Remember, you’re getting that from students,” she said.

Hudson, who offered a “no comment” of his own when asked if he’d helped organize the rally, said he’s ready to face the consequences. But he’s uncertain what, if anything, the students can do next.

“All we got to do is keep moving forward,” he said. “We’re trying. We’re trying to get the community involved, and maybe they’ll see that we care about what’s happening in our school. We’re teenagers – but we do care. This is our home.”

Student views split

Not every student supported the walkout.

“It’s for all the wrong reasons. Students don’t even know why they’re walking out. It’s ridiculous,” said student Briana Nelson as she watched the demonstration. “I believe in change, and I believe [the Renaissance plan] is a good change.”

 Murray, the principal, thinks the unhappy students are in the minority. “We have a thousand kids in this building, and very few kids came out. The majority of kids in his building want to see this school continue to grow and do great things,” he said.

 Still, Murray saw the day’s events as an opportunity for “tremendous lessons about what the school is all about, who the school is named after, and what it means to be involved in nonviolent demonstrations, and wanting to see positive change.”  

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.