We ALL have to save John Swett Elementary School

root - Posted on 21 March 2007

Parents and students of John Swett file a lawsuit questioning the environmental impact of the proposed merger of their school

by Tiny, poverty scholar and daughter of Dee /PoorNewsNetwork

“But we have to save John Swett, it’s not just a school, it’s a whole community, and it’s just a crime if they close it…” My mama’s voice trailed off into the car’s whir.

My mama and I were fighting on the way back to our offices from the house of one of the parent liaisons of John Swett Elementary. But that was typical, when we were under stress we always reverted to fighting, a by-product of our life in poverty and our seemingly unending struggle to stay up and out of it. But today it was about what to do about John Swett, how to divide our minimal resources at POOR Magazine between all the urgently needed issues we attempted to work on and where to put our time and more importantly, our energy so this school would not be closed.

John Swett Elementary School was slated for closure and merger with another school this year by the San Francisco school board as part of a response to declining enrollment in the district. After a huge outcry from the parents, grandparents, students, and teachers of John Swett, a school with an arts-based curriculum and a proactive parent and student body, several members of the San Francisco Board Supervisors got behind a concerted effort to save the school. This effort launched by San Francisco Supervisors Ross Mirakarimi and Chris Daly resulted in the approval of a measure to support the school with $650,000.00 emergency dollars.

The money was rejected by the school board.

Add to this rejection the fact that the school was and is running at 81% enrollment, a far higher percentage than other schools that were slated not closed. The Board’s calling for closure made no sense.

“Well, then we’ll have to work on John Swett as our only media campaign this month,” I concluded with an annoyed, disrespectful tone to my voice, to which my mother almost slapped upside my 35-year-old-attitude-having head.

Ever since my mama Dee heard about the pending closure of the school located in the heart of the historically African–American majority neighborhood of the Western Addition, which was destabilized by the lie of redevelopment in the 1960’s, she insisted that POOR staff unilaterally dedicate time to save it. We visited several John Swett classrooms, two John Swett families’ houses, talked with several teachers and students, and had conversations with the school principal and a supportive school board member. After our comprehensive research was completed, our urgency to save the school increased. This was one of the most real examples of the “village” we had ever seen in action.

The school was an unbelievable mix of class, culture, and languages. Families were truly integrated into the running of the school in a way I have rarely seen in any school. The school actively practiced the indigenous tradition of “eldership”, which POOR Magazine organizationally and personally practiced as well. And they didn’t follow scripted, packaged curricula. Instead creating an innovative art based curriculum that drew on the scholarship of the school’s diverse families and communities.

After having their hopes and efforts dashed in June when the $650,000 was rejected by the school board, the families re-grouped and came back with their newest fight to save their school in the form of a lawsuit alleging that the School Board failed to conduct environmental impact studies on the merger required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). To which the School District legal counsel David Campos has so far responded that school closures are exempt from CEQA except in cases of significant impact.

“I don’t want them to close my school,” said a small framed, serious looking 10-year-old John Swett Elementary School student named David, and then he added, “My auntie and grandma don’t want them to close my school either.”

My Afro-centric thinking and practicing Mama Dee passed in March of this year. John Swett was the last media organizing campaign she worked on at POOR. And like every campaign she launched, she focused all of her brilliant analytical, socially just mind and soul to it and became integrated with their story as though it was her story, our story.

I am sorry for every moment I gave my mama “lip,” especially that last time about John Swett cause she was right, nothing else we were working on mattered as much right then, no matter how important, because if this school was closed, if this school is closed, a community will fall apart, the elders will have lost their important role in the “raising” of our youth, and a whole community and its future generations will be broken apart.

Tiny, aka Lisa Gray-Garcia, welfareQUEEN, poet and daughter of dee is the editor of POOR Magazine and PoorNewsNetwork. For more journalism and art on issues of poverty and racism by youth and adults who experience if first-hand go on-line to www.poormagazine.org. Tiny's memoir Criminal of Poverty; Growing up Homeless In America will be released by City Lights In November. She Is dedicating It to her mamaDEE


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