- Interview by
- Eric Blanc
Two weeks ago, district leaders in Rochester, New York, announced their plan to lay off 218 school employees — including 152 teachers — to make up for a $30 million deficit. The board is slated to vote on the proposed cuts this Thursday.
Last Monday, hundreds of students walked out to demand that all layoffs be canceled and that the state step in provide the necessary funding. More walkouts are planned for this week. Jacobin’s Eric Blanc spoke with the three main student organizers: twelfth-grader Madison Smith, eighth-grader Sarah Adams, and sixth-grader Maya Adams. All are students at East High School.
What was your reaction when you heard about the proposed cuts?
On Friday, December 6, the district sent out an email at 11:20 a.m. to all the teachers they had decided to fire. Two weeks earlier, we had heard about a proposal to cut teachers, but honestly, I didn’t think the district would go through with it. But they did.
It was lunchtime, and instead of going downstairs, I stayed up on our classroom floor. A lot of my teachers were crying. It was really sad. They were talking to each other about how their whole life would change now, how they would have to move away.
I was really upset because a specific teacher I have a connection with was on the list to get cut. So I was shocked. He teaches two subjects, math and science. I’m not sure what our school is going to do without him.
My initial reaction was anger. It just doesn’t make sense to cut teachers in the middle of year, especially just before Christmastime. And it’s not just the middle of the year, it’s also the middle of our school semester, which ends in January.
If the cuts go through, how do you think Rochester schools will be affected?
School definitely won’t be the same. I’m worried we won’t be able to learn. No one is going to want to be under this school system, nobody is going to trust the schools. And I think it’ll hurt our learning, because we’ll have fewer teachers, but not fewer students. So it’s not just teachers suffering, students will be suffering, too.
It’s going to be depressing if the cuts happen. It’s going to make us feel that those in charge don’t care about what we need, that they don’t care at all about what’s best for us.
And think about the elementary school kids who are going to lose their teachers. If you take away connections with teachers and if you lose a love of learning at such a young age, you can’t get that back. And most of the proposed teacher cuts are in elementary schools — so it’ll have a long-term impact.
It will make the classroom very hard, especially for the first few weeks. It’ll be just like when we have substitute teachers, with lots of kids jumping around and being wild and all that. When there’s a sub, you know kids don’t behave at all, and that’s probably what it’s going to be like if they cut our teachers.
Can you describe how you organized last Monday’s walkout?
We started organizing like one hour after that email announcement went out on Friday morning. At first, I was just really sad, but then I kind of snapped out of it. I was like, “We can’t just talk, we need to do something.” So we did.
Me and Sarah, that afternoon after school, decided we’d call for a walkout to show support for our teachers. So when I got home, I made a Facebook post that called on every school in the city to walk out the following Monday.
I have a pretty big following, and people all over started sharing it, posting screenshots all over Facebook and Snapchat. News of the walkout spread real quick.
The next day, that Saturday, I went to Madison’s house — we spent all day making posters. Then on Sunday, also with Maya and some other friends, we got together again and wrote a press release explaining our plan. This got the attention of TV stations, and we ended up doing interviews on Channel 10 and 13, and with the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. The TV interviews really raised awareness. People saw how serious the layoffs were — and how serious we were.
Monday’s walkout felt like we really achieved something, it was a huge success. Our school, East High, and a bunch of other schools walked out. Teachers weren’t allowed to publicly support us, but we could tell they were supporting us.
Monday’s walkout showed us that we were actually doing something beneficial, something with an outcome, something good. And we saw how many people support us. We can’t win this alone, we need the support of the whole community.
Next, we called for a mobilization at last Thursday’s Board of Education. We called on everyone to show up and to wear “Red for Ed” to show their support, just like they’ve been doing across the country and in the Chicago strike. That action at the board was massive and loud; hundreds of people came, we really made our voices heard.
Most students in Rochester are black or Latino — do you feel that this is also a racial justice struggle?
Definitely. Ninety percent of us in the district are students of color. We see some suburban districts nearby getting millions more than us for their schools, and I think if we were a suburban district, the state would be helping us get out of our deficit. But because we’re a city school district with mostly students of color, nobody wants to help.
A lot of us are in poverty, so Rochester schools actually need more money than elsewhere. No one is really talking about this problem. It has to do with systematic racism.
Education is what can help us get jobs — but if we don’t get that opportunity from the system, then students look for other pathways to survive. And a lot of them end up in prison. It feels a lot like we’re in a system made to send kids to jail.
I think if this was a suburban district, the state would have already bailed us out. But they say we don’t know how to handle money, that if they give us money, we wouldn’t handle it correctly.
What’s your response to those in the district or in Albany who say that there’s just not enough money to prevent these cuts?
For me, I think we need to put kids first. Think about how it’s going to affect us. It’s not just about money, it’s about our education. They should put us kids first and then worry about the money.
I feel like the state puts a lot of money into jails that instead should be used for education. In Rochester, we see what happens when schools don’t get the money they need to help us thrive.
I’m not sure where exactly the money should come from — but I think the state’s funds should be put toward the people who need it, not those who don’t need it as much.
What demands are you making on the district and the state government?
Right now, we’re asking to keep our teachers. This is an emergency. And we want them to keep their jobs for good. We want the $97 million in funding we’re owed from the state, which they’re still denying us, or second-guessing whether to give to us.
We want our teachers to keep their jobs, and at the very least, we need them to stay through the end of the school year. But our long-term goal is fixing RCSD [Rochester City School District]. We need a new Board of Ed, we need to get people in there who don’t mismanage funds and who actually care about kids.
And I think we should chop from the top: the salaries at the central office are way too high.
What’s next? And how can people across the country show their support?
We don’t have a lot of time to stop this — the Board of Ed is voting on these cuts this coming Thursday, December 19. So [on December 16], we’re going to have another walkout and we’re going to march to the central office with a bunch of different schools. We’re going to demand what we need. And then we’re going to do the same on Thursday.
As far as national support, we’re asking people across the country to wear red or to walk out of school this coming Thursday. Take photos or videos of yourself or your friends showing your support for Rochester. Everything you can do to raise awareness will have an impact.
We’ve got to stop these layoffs, and we’ve got to prevent things like this from happening ever again. That’s why we need to make it clear that it’s not just Rochester that cares about public education — and that it’s not just Rochester that’s being affected by underfunding. Everywhere needs to see real change.