District Bars Protest 'Field Trip'

Brenda Reyes

The San Francisco Unified School District barred an Excelsior community school from conducting a field trip in which students as young as 8 would have marched in Thursday’s protest against state funding cuts.

About 70 percent of the parents at the San Francisco Community School had signed permission slips for children in grades 2-8 to participate in the outing, which was organized after a vote by 11 parents and faculty members on the Save Our Schools committee.

The district didn’t want the protests to take away from instructional time, said spokeswoman Gentle Blythe. She said parents who wanted to take their children to the protest could sign students out of class like they would for a doctor’s appointment.

“We encouraged parents and students to go to the demonstration taking place at 4 p.m. in Civic Center Plaza or any demonstration taking place after school hours,” she told Newswire21.org on the eve of the protest. “Many of us have been teachers and are very upset about the state of education funding. We will be joining the rally after school.”

Adrienne Johnstone, a teacher who represents the teachers’ union at the school, had planned for the students and their families to lead the demonstration as the “face of the march.”

Teacher Robin Yorkey said she had expected 300 students, teachers and family members to join the protest, which had been planned for weeks in coordination with other community groups.

The Filipino Community Center, Coleman Advocates for Youth, HOMEY, Chinese Progressive Association, and PODER, along with several other community organizations met with school faculty to coordinate security for the kids, said Jun Cruz, co-coordinator for the Filipino center.

After the district’s decision six days before the rally, school representatives phoned parents who’d signed permission slips to see if they would pull their children out of class to join the march.

“If students are taken out of class to go on other field trips, why not let them go to one where they learn to defend their rights as students?” said Leticia Colmenares, an 18-year resident of the Excelsior who was among the 170 parents to sign permission slips.

Her 10-year-old son, Luis, said his teacher told her class of 21 students the budget cuts mean “teachers losing jobs” and “bigger classes.” He said he was excited about the protest because “they may not make the cuts.”

Cultural Divide
Not all the parents thought the outing was a good idea, with levels of approval varying along cultural lines in the school, which offers classes from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Of the 285 students, the school says 39 percent are Hispanic, 23 percent Chinese, 14 percent African American, 11 percent white, 7 percent Filipino, and 6 percent from multiple or other ethnicities. More than a third are learning English.

Sofia Nixon, the school’s parent liaison, and school secretary Ivy Chan called every student’s family to encourage their participation. Nixon, also a Spanish translator, said 23 of 40 Spanish-speaking parents planned to attend the march.

Nixon said many Hispanic parents had two or three jobs “or are currently looking for a job,” and that is was a challenge to ask them to take the day off to protest with their children. But she said most were comfortable with their children marching in a political protest.

Chan, however, said she had difficulty explaining the significance of the protest to Chinese-speaking parents. “They will listen and give you the time of day, but all you’ll get is ‘we’ll see,’” she said.

Chinese parents didn’t give permission for children from kindergarten to third grade to participate, according to Chan, who noted she would have reacted the same way. “What’s one more body if there’s so many already?”

Chan described the school’s teachers as “all hippies,” and said she couldn’t say whether rallies and marches were effective.

Other Schools
The community school’s efforts to organize its students weren’t typical of nearby schools. For example, Sunnyside Elementary School Principal Nancy Schlenke said she “didn’t even know” about the rally. And Sheridan Elementary School Secretary Odette Catalaa said parents were never notified about protests or encouraged to attend.

Two weeks before the march, Eliza Okwan, a second-year secretary at Longfellow Elementary said fliers were translated and sent home in Spanish and Chinese. This was the first time she could remember that the school invited families to rally at the Civic Center in the evening, she added.

Kylee Pinten, an 11-year paraprofessional who works with special needs children at Commodore Sloat Elementary, said teachers were notified through email and that fliers were sent home in one of February’s weekly newsletters.

The community School’s situation was different, according to Rachel Lederman, a parent who handled outreach with other area schools and with groups who planned to provide protection to the SFC contingent.

“SFC is a small school and a teacher run school with a high level of parent participation,” said Lederman, “so it [was] easier for us to organize as a whole school than some other bigger schools.”