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March 4: Students and Teachers Hit the Streets!

I am just home from a day of participating in Oakland protests against cuts to our schools. I began the morning standing on a corner a few miles from my home with former colleagues from Bret Harte Middle School, where I taught for 18 years. We held up signs and waved as motorists honked as they passed by.

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Then I visited a local elementary school, Redwood Heights, where I videotaped the students and teachers as they chanted and the school band played.

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I stopped by Laney Community College, where I went to school in the early 1980's. Several hundred students gathered for a rally in the main plaza. Those students marched downtown, where they joined high school students from Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda. The cosmetology students from Laney looked especially sharp, and chanted their slogan, "Cut Hair, Not Budgets!"
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Much of the current "reform movement" as defined by Obama and Duncan pits students against teachers by accusing teachers of being the reason students do not succeed. While these students know that some teachers are more concerned and effective than others, they were clearly in support of their teachers, and committed to solidarity with us. Many carried signs, such as "Teachers need Love," and "We support Our Teachers." Oakland Education Association President Betty Olson-Jones addressed the crowd and built on this spirit of unity in the face of adversity.

A couple of hours later, students who marched from UC Berkeley four miles away arrived, and the crowd swelled to several thousand. The rally was very democratic, with numerous speakers from the local high schools and colleges, political organizations, labor unions, and teachers. The group heard from students visiting from Japan, who shared their common struggle against the privatization of education there.

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Many speakers connected the cuts in education to the continued expansion of funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ever growing budget for prisons in our state. This connection was made very real when a student from Merritt College shared how she had entered college after several scrapes with the law, and was determined to pursue a brighter future through her education. See the video below for a bit of inspiration.

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This student rap group got the crowd moving with a clear statement about the importance of education.

The organizers of the rally expressed determination that this is just the beginning of their efforts. One speaker pointed out that many of our students gained opportunities to enter higher education for the first time in the 1960s after massive protests shook the system. Now those opportunities are being removed, and we must take similar actions to bring these opportunities back.

My day of protest ended at the state office building, where elected officials and labor leaders addressed a crowd of about a hundred teachers. School district administrators had made agreements with the teacher union to allow students and teachers to participate in protests. Schools held "disaster drills" at 9 am to raise awareness of the budget catastrophe we face.

I found it inspiring to hear students express such determination to protect their access to education. Speaker after speaker spoke of their appreciation for their teachers, and their dedication to learning and their own futures. It seems paradoxical that we have a school reform movement devoted to preparing all of our students for college, and at the same time society is choosing priorities that make college off limits for most of our youth.

Teachers are discussing how to build on this energy to shift the education debate in our nation over at the Teachers' Letters to Obama Facebook group. Join us!

What do you think? Were there protests in your area? How can we help build this movement?

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