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April 4, 2011

Lessons from a Student Activist

Elliot Vazquez
Elliot Vazquez

Elliot Vazquez, a junior at Samuel Gompers High School in the Bronx, is a student of history. That’s why he’s worried: he knows that when a school struggles for too long, the city is apt to shut it down. Vazquez, 16, can see that Gompers is struggling. The school’s graduation and attendance rates, as well as its annual test scores, are well below the citywide average. But he and his friends refuse to believe that closing the school, as the city is considering, is the right response.

Instead, Vazquez and more than a dozen fellow student activists have hashed out their own list of ways to improve the school. They plan to deliver their proposals to the administration in the coming days.

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In the following interview, Vazquez shares lessons that any student or community member intent on saving a struggling school could use. Here is an edited version of our conversation:

Q: You and your friends recently organized a meeting at a church to discuss problems at Gompers and ways to fix them. Around 50 of your peers showed up. What were some of the issues they raised?

At the Trinity Church meeting, we had a thing where everyone lines up and steps forward if they’ve seen something. And we were like, “Step forward if you’ve seen our principal more than three times in the entire school year.” Four people stepped forward out of 50.

…So basically the problem with our principal is that she’s not seen at all. What we want from her is to be more active, to go around. We want to see her face. We want to know that she’s watching the hallways.

What’s a typical class like at Gompers?

We come in. “Oh, okay, do your work. Do more work. Do more work. Do more work. Teach. Teach. Then next class.”

The teacher could be the greatest person in the world, but if they’re teaching like that, we can’t tell how they are. If they’re with us, or they’re like, “You’re just my students and I don’t care.”

So what would an ideal class be like?

One of the teachers who was forced to leave because they didn’t need her anymore, she was very interactive with her lessons.

…She would talk to us on our level. She would be real with us. She was like, “Alright, here’s what’s going to happen.” If you didn’t do the homework, she would say, “If you don’t do this, I’m going to have to fail you.” She was funny too. She was entertaining. She was a people person – a student person.

How can students get involved in school improvement?

Basically we’d like to set a system up where older grade students would tutor. Or it could be mentoring or friendship. In general, it would be someone to look up to, who you could tell your problems to.

Your group asked the administration to let students have a say in budget decisions. Why is that important?

So we can choose what we need. That’s basically it. If we need tutoring for a subject we see a lot of students having a problem with, we could get that. Or if we have a recreational program we know about, we could bring that in.

In the end, it’s really the students and teachers who know what we need because it’s not there. Being able to reconfigure the budget for our needs will really help us a lot.

Your group also suggested that the school implement peer mediation, in which students help settle conflicts. How would that work?

When you suspend somebody because of a fight, that’s not ending the problem. That’s just pushing the problem aside for however long the person is suspended.

But if we mediate things, that person could come and talk about the problem and end it there. No one would need to get suspended. It could work before things ever get out of hand.

Last year, 42 percent of Gompers students who completed a Department of Education survey said the school felt unsafe. How do you feel inside Gompers?

Well when there’s cameras watching you, there are bars on the windows, you can’t open the windows, and you have to go through a metal detector every day, and there’s sweeps every other period, it’s like, “Alright, this is it, I’m in prison.”

And what message does that send you?

If they treat me like a criminal, I must be a criminal.

Around 800 students attend Gompers. Three-fourths of them qualify for the federal free lunch program, which is often used as an indicator of poverty. How do issues at home affect kids at school?

A lot of students, they don’t have a home. They’re homeless, or they live in group homes. Or they only have one parent at home – they need to work. Things like that.

I actually know someone who was homeless. He had to miss school a lot. He missed three months consecutively. I mean it’s really messed up too because he’s a bright student. But he can’t do anything about it.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took control of the school system, the city has closed over 90 public schools. Many of them were large, struggling schools like Gompers. Do you think shutting down a school is ever the right choice?

Of course not. That’s never a good idea.

Gompers is a small school, but still, 800 students going to small schools. We’ll just be overcrowding other schools with our ESL students and our special ed students and our regular students. It would create a big web of destruction.

Also, they set us up to fail. They don’t give us what we need: money, resources, things like that. They use false statistics to make it look like schools need to shut down when it’s not true.

Over the past several months, you’ve marched in rallies and even walked out of class to protest DOE policies. You’ve also studied student organizing with a local political group, called Sistas and Brothas United. What have you learned from all of this?

How to think for yourself. How to see what’s truly behind things that are masked.

…I’ve grown as an individual. I can do a speech on the spot – well not on the spot. I was never able to do a speech before. Like in public, I was very nervous. And now they taught me, don’t be nervous. They taught me how to become a leader.

How do you become a leader?

It involves being knowledgeable on the subject you’re trying to lead on. Being involved with [your] base and leading…You got to be real with them.

…In the end the people that you get to come out are the people that are going to stay with you. They’re going to be leaders with you.

At school you take an Advanced Placement history class. That’s also your favorite subject. Have you studied anything in history class that’s inspired your work outside of school?

Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” That really showed me how to get people on their toes. He says if we’re not happy with something, change it.

You and your friends have put a lot of time and thought into fixing Gompers. What do you hope is the outcome of your work?

For Gompers to be on the map. For Gompers to be – even if it’s not a specialized high school – to be a high school that everyone wants to go to.

Do you have any advice for other students who want to help save their schools?

Work, work, work. Work on it hard. Get more people involved. Support each other. Grow as a team, grow as leaders. If you want to write something good, do it with your heart. Do it with your soul. It will all come naturally when it happens.

About this author

Marly Pierre-Louis

Marly is a graduate student studying Urban Planning at Hunter College and a full time mommy to BMC’s junior employee, Sekani. Prior to coming to BMC, Marly served as the Social Media Marketing intern for PCI Media Impact and a member of the Coordinating Committee for the Malcolm X Grassroots MovementShe has a background in advocacy and social justice work and has done communications work for PCI Media Impact and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. A love of international travel coupled with a slight scatterbrain has caused Marly to lose 4 passports within 4 years. She is now on a Department of State red list.

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