The estimated 1,000 high-school students who marched Broad Street to protest School District budget cuts on Friday were not just visible. They were loud, rambunctious and utterly unmoved by the politics of the moment.
These kids — these activists — who walked out of classrooms and onto Philadelphia’s main thoroughfare were sure of what they wanted, and they knew how they would go about getting it.
A remarkable sight
I encountered them as I drove along Broad Street on Friday. I was struck first by the sound of their shouting, and then by their appearance.
They emerged from the City Hall’s shadow and walked into the bright afternoon sunshine with signs and chants, confidence and determination.
“Fear is met and destroyed with courage,” read a sign held high by a schoolgirl with fire in her eyes.
I watched them and marveled at their single-mindedness. As I did so, one question reverberated in my mind: Where are the adults?
Calling for backup
As Draconian state budget cuts gut public education in our city, where are the adults?
As we witness the closure of 24 schools driven by decades of depopulation and budget woes, where are the adults?
As we watch the young people who marched on Broad Street call out hypocrisy for what it is, where are the adults?
Why aren’t we marching with them, fighting with them and shouting with them? Why aren’t we taking to the streets?
Don’t we realize that the plight of these students is not theirs alone? That school closures and funding cuts represent a systemic restructuring of public education? That the same scenario is playing out in cities across the country? That the dismantling of urban school systems could ultimately lead to the destruction of a generation?
Seeing the big picture
Perhaps we don’t fully understand the ramifications of school budget cuts, but our children do.
They told me as much when I saw them marching Broad Street while shouting, “S.O.S.,” the age-old call for help. I didn’t honk my horn, as the students’ handheld signs instructed passing motorists to do. I parked my car, got out and began to walk with them.
I asked Benny Ramos, a student at Charles Carroll High School, why he was marching.
“We’re out here to stop the school to prison pipeline,” he said.
A wise response, since nearly 1 in 5 Philadelphians is a high school dropout, and dropouts, according to District Attorney Seth Williams, are more likely to be victims or perpetrators of Philadelphia’s street violence.
Ramos’ response was also ironic, given that Philadelphia’s six county prisons spent $231 million to house 5,690 inmates in 2011 while running a $3.9 million deficit.
Calls for help
But unlike the 24 schools that will be shuttered due to the School District’s $304 million spending gap in the next fiscal year, none of Philadelphia’s County prisons is scheduled to close.
The students didn’t quote such numbers as they marched. They didn’t have to, because they can see the reality played out in their daily lives.
They walk into schools that look like prisons, with metal detectors and school police, flat fluorescent lights and darkened corridors. The students want more than that, and they aren’t afraid to say it.
Asked what he wanted to result from the march, Ramos was adamant.
“We hope to get more supplies, less metal detectors and more teachers,” he said, “and less budget cuts.”
I asked Ramos what he would say if the School District could see and hear him:
“I would say, ‘Yo, you can’t hide. We’ll be right here.'”
Those sentiments were echoed by other students, as well.
“You might be able to control your teachers with their money and their paychecks, but that don’t stop us,” said a Central High School student who marched close to the front of the crowd. “We’re gonna keep going!”
“S.O.S.!” he shouted.
“Save Our Schools!” came the response.
Again and again they shouted it: S.O.S.
It is a desperate call for help. Our children have screamed it at the top of their lungs.
They’ve scrawled it on signs of protest.
They’ve whispered it in underfunded schools.
As adults, we must do everything we can to answer that call, even as students march to save themselves.