Students from Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a Detroit public school that has received international accolades as a successful model for educating pregnant and parenting teenage mothers, held a sit-in that created a national movement that successfully kept their school open, and is a national model of how to fight and win in the struggle to defend public education.
When Emergency Financial Manager Rob Bobb announced his plan to close dozens more schools, including CFA, CFA students decided to adopt an independent strategy to keep their school open. Their first decision was to join the Detroit BAMN chapter that had already led high school walk- outs, which succeeded in keeping neighborhood Detroit high schools off the closing list. The CFA students understood that the strategy advocated by their principal of lobbying and treating the closure of CFA as a misunderstanding would fail.
On April 15, a group of students, one of their teachers and other community activists occupied the school and refused to leave. The student sit-in was supplemented by a picket outside of the school that grew in size and militancy when the police arrested the peaceful sit-in protestors.
The determination of the students to stay in their school and hold their ground even if it meant getting arrested, resulted in the first breakthrough of national publicity for the plight of public education in Detroit and the racism behind then-Governor Granholm’s and now Governor Snyder’s takeover of the Detroit schools.
Ever since Arne Duncan declared Detroit “ground zero” in an attempt to turn Detroit into another New Orleans, but without a hurricane, Detroit has faced relentless bi-partisan attacks on its public schools. The independent action of the CFA student occupiers created a national movement and a huge outpouring of support from all over the world, and produced the first victory against the seemingly unbeatable bi-partisan juggernaut that has already closed nearly a third of Detroit’s public schools.
In the period immediately following the sit-in, when it looked like CFA was going to be the only high school closed because of the independent stand of the BAMN CFA students, the students, instead of backing away from direct action, organized a city-wide student march that took over Woodward Avenue during rush hour, and began preparations for a much larger school occupation.
The students’ unwavering commitment to win the fight for their school won their principal and then several local churches and unions to their cause. On the last day of school, when hundreds of people, including actor Danny Glover, turned out to keep the school open, the new Republican-appointed Emergency Manager Roy Roberts backed down and announced that the school would stay open under a local charter company, with all its great programs and services intact.
The CFA victory was an important victory for the city of Detroit and for the new student-led civil rights movement. The CFA student leaders, like Rosa Parks, sat down so that we could all stand up. They are not just the pride of Detroit; they are for millions of young people, especially young women worldwide who are following this struggle, heroes and role models.CFA must become a national model of action for anyone who wants to defend their right to a public education.
In order to strengthen and embolden more students and teachers to follow CFA’s example, we need to spread the word about this victory and fight to get the charges of trespassing dropped against the occupiers and supporters.
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