Students march down Broad Street for school funding

crowdThousands of students poured off SEPTA buses and emerged from the Spring Garden stop on the Broad Street Line today to rally at the School District Building in Philadelphia. They were there to protest the ongoing school district budget cuts and to put pressure on both the Philadelphia government and the state government to fund the $300 million funding gap looming over the district.

Organized by Philadelphia Student Union, Youth United for Change, the Silent Student Movement and the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, students began the rally by closing off the southbound lanes of Broad Street south of Spring Garden.

education not jailsThe walkout was meant to coincide with the debate over use and occupancy taxes being debated in City Hall. The school district has asked for $120 million from the state legislature to help fill the gaps. Mayor Michael Nutter recently proposed cigarette and liquor taxes, which would have to be approved by both City Council and the State Legislature, to help fund the schools. The city is also expected to step up efforts to collect taxes owed to the district. The School Reform Committee recently voted to close 23 schools.

Students told PW they’ve already felt effects of the cuts, losing some sports and arts curriculum.

Kiara Garcia, a 10th grader at Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, was walking with her classmates across Spring Garden down Broad Street as the protest got underway.

“I know that when we do protests here at 440, they get the wrong connotation, but it comes from the heart, and it’s serious to us,” she told PW, noting that dance in her school has already been removed. “People are already relocating [to other schools] because of the arts. It’s not the way it should be. That’s an outlet for us. That’s why people turn to violence, drugs, all those other things—because we have nothing else to do.”

She said she wasn’t surprised at how many students showed up, noting today’s event had been planned and spread through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. A volunteer with Youth United For Change, Garcia said the amount of people at the protest was “overwhelming—Oh my God. It touches my heart.”

The common consensus among the thousands of students on hand was that everyone knew the walkout was going to happen. While I asked questions about Twitter, lots of students informed me that Instagram is actually a more popular social media tool for them—perhaps the most important tool.

On Instagram, a small pink poster which read “Walkout!” at the top noting the time and place of the rally had circulated amongst everyone everyone knew. I was handed one of the pink cards while there. It read at the bottom: “Protest the horrible budget cuts and demand more funding from City Council. March from School District Building to City Council budget hearings.”

A common point made by students walking down Broad Street was how low the expectations of them were.

“Most of the time, us, as kids, have no say of how the money should be spent, even though it’s our education and our future,” Kensington Health Sciences Academy student Eleni Bligiannos told me. “Adults see us as kids who make mistakes and do stupid things, but in reality, it’s not like that. We have voices, and we have opinions and everything, and they’re not being heard.”

Jilisa McCullough, a junior at Masterman, said she’s especially worried about guidance counselors potentially being cut from the district payroll.

“I’m a junior, and I’m not going to have anyone to guide me through the college application process, and that’s a problem,” she said, adding: “We’re not going to have any arts, music or sports. A lot of kids are hoping for sports scholarships to go to college, but they can’t have that without sports.”

The rally moved from the School District Building at 440 North Broad Street to City Hall, where students marched around the building, eventually moving into its courtyard through the north entrance. Mayor Michael Nutter was actually outside watching the march from the sidewalk. A few students here and there began chanting “Shame,” which didn’t seem to phase him.

Masterman student Gomian Konneh

Masterman student Gomian Konneh

Chants continued in the courtyard and eventually moved to speeches through a bullhorn that was passed around. One member of the Philadelphia Student Union, Gomian Konneh, a junior at Masterman, gave a “mic-check”-like speech, a la Occupy, in which she’d voice a few words, which the crowd would repeat.

“We will not let them take advantage of us,” she said, reading from a speech she wrote. “We need our voices to be heard. We cannot let them think that we are just naïve children complacent in mediocrity. We are citizens, members of society who have dreams. We are the future. You are unable to take care of us now. How do you expect us to take care of you later?”

State Rep. Ronald Waters (D-Philadelphia) spoke as well. I asked him what sort of message he plans on bringing back to Harrisburg, based on what he saw.

“I want to make sure I express that we had thousands of students who came out here who were well behaved students who only asked that we invest in their future. They say that they are worthy of it. And I wanted to remind that they are not just worthy, but entitled to it. That’s the responsibility of government: to provide education to our citizens. And they’re not doing it,” he said.

His speech and comments quickly turned political. “I hope that these students realize when they turn 18, the governor will be running for re-election at that same time,” he said. “So if you don’t want to invest in them, then why should they invest in him?”

Konneh told me afterwards that she’d been chosen to speak and wrote her speech after simply volunteering for it at a Philadelphia Student Union meeting.

“Everybody in the school district cares about what’s happening, and I know that these kids are amazing and willing to fight for their rights, risk detention and punishment to get what they deserve,” she said.

She then ducked out before the rally could move back to the School District building. Tonight is her junior prom.

Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso

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