The Lesson South Oak Cliff High Just Taught All DISD Students

I’m not quite sure it has sunk in yet just what a potentially city-changing event has been unfolding over the past couple of months in South Oak Cliff.

Yes, there’s a story about it on the front page of today’s metro section. Sure, the incident was widely covered on local TV stations. But I’m not quite sure it has sunk in yet just what a potentially city-changing event has been unfolding over the past couple of months in South Oak Cliff.

It began with the sad fact that South Oak Cliff High School is in terrible shape. Students describe falling ceiling tiles, leaky classrooms, malfunctioning HVAC, decrepit locker rooms, and empty library shelves. The district set aside $13 million to address some of these issues in the upcoming $1.6 billion bond program, but that’s a drop in the bucket when compared with the $40 million it is estimated to take to make South Oak Cliff High School look like, you know, a real school. So the students walked out. Last December, 250 of them demonstrated in front of their school demanding that the district figure out how to provide a place where they can learn that doesn’t communicate to them on a daily basis that they have already been written-off by the world.

And the district responded.

Now trustees plan to double the amount of money they will spend on fixing South Oak Cliff High School to $25 million. It’s still short of the $40 million the school needs, but that’s a huge concession. Students staged a collective action, and they forced the hand of the district, which will now double the amount of money it will spend on fixing South Oak Cliff High School.

I believe that’s major, and here’s why.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on the trials and tribulations of the Dallas Independent School District. Mostly I just follow Eric’s terrific coverage, and I’m always left with two lingering impressions. The first is that urban public schooling is a really, really difficult nut to crack, a kind of complicated Rubik’s Cube of a challenge in which every new solution shifts the terms and conditions of all the other problems.

The other impression I’m often left with is that this multi-faceted challenge of urban public schooling is complicated by the many competing interests — from DISD trustees to administrators to teachers to politicians to charter schools to other outside groups, advocates, organizations, and companies — that are all advancing their own priorities and agendas. What so often gets lost is the shuffle are the needs and desires of the students who rely on DISD for their education. It is often forgotten that these students’ decrepit, underfunded, poorly staffed, and often failing public schools are the source of their hope, the root of their future.

If you don’t think that DISD students understand all of this, well, the students of South Oak Cliff High School just showed this city that they do. They showed how much they care about their education and how frustrated they are by the continuing neglect. They showed that they have more dignity and purpose than those charged with running their crumbling school seem to believe they possess. And South Oak Cliff High School also showed every student in Dallas that they can’t rely on their teachers, principals, or elected representatives when it comes to getting the resources and creating a proper environment to learn. The adults have failed the students, and the students just took matters into their own hands. They walked out. They demonstrated. And the district responded by doubling the amount of money it will spend on their school.

In other words, through their collective action the students found — and exploited — a pressure point in the political structure that governs their lives.

This event did not happen in a vacuum. I don’t have to list the litany of demonstrations — from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter — that have become increasingly commonplace in this country. Regardless of what you think about any of these particular movements, they offer an example of what is possible through collective action, and the students of South Oak Cliff High School took that example and ran with it. Don’t look now, but if this generation of DISD figures out how to organize beyond the campus of South Oak Cliff High School, the Dallas Independent School District could have a mighty big problem.

There are approximately 160,000 students in DISD. What would happen if a small percentage of them — 5,000, 10,000 — showed up on Ross Avenue demanding better schools and a better education? How would the priorities of the bond program shift then?

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