Over Labor Day weekend, I had the honor to march alongside dozens of Detroit students and teachers in demand of an Online Learning Bill of Rights. The young people in the lead were brazen, bold, and unapologetic. We took the streets with a force of less than 50 people marching down Woodward Avenue to Detroit’s top magnet school, Cass Technical High School.
We marched because Detroit students have been told they can’t be trusted. Not in so many words, of course. The district announced their deal with the teacher’s union just before school started: a blend of face-to-face and online instruction with the vast majority of the district’s 50,000 students logging on from home. The schedule students are expected to follow was pulled directly from the in-person schedule: 55-minute classes, 7 classes a day, Monday through Friday. 5 minute breaks.
"Detroit students have been told they can’t be trusted."
In contrast, a student in our organization who attends Troy public schools - about a half an hour away from Detroit - is in 90-minute classes 3 times a day with half hour breaks. They’re taking the same number of classes but with vastly increased time for rest, small group discussion, personal interests, and independent work. They even have optional mental health check in time every day. Detroit students know they cannot be given such leeway, because the district believes that they, their parents, and their teachers can’t be trusted.
The chants on Labor Day weekend were inspired by Black Youth Project 100 and were therefore full of the same Black joy, resilience, and defiance BYP brings to every direct action. One call and response re-written by students struck me as uniquely powerful:
“Adopt Our Bill of Rights
Set Our Students Free
I’m Letting Our Students Know
I Love You Like You Were Me.”
What does it mean to parents, administrators, and teachers to love students like they were us? How would schools have to transform to accommodate this mind-shift? Certainly we could not park young people in front of a camera from 8-3 and lecture them if we loved them like they were us.
It’s less than 2 weeks into the school year and already we’re seeing young people and their families reported to DHS or the police for playing with a toy gun in their own home, failing to log into online classes, or not wearing the appropriate uniform. Many of us knew back in July that the viral case of “Grace,” the Black student in a Metro Detroit school who was sent to juvenile detention for not doing online homework, was only the tip of the iceberg. Schools operate on the daily control and domination of students. Now they’re bringing it home with them.
At the height of the march, our team left a banner hanging over the freeway overpass proclaiming “Black Education Matters.” I’m sure the banner was swiftly taken down, but I hope it has caused the Detroit Public Schools board and Superintendent Vitti to reflect on the fact that they have created an environment where students feel they do not matter. In the midst of a pandemic, a racial uprising against police violence, and climate catastrophe these young people are fighting for their right to learn, to be free, to matter.