O.C. Students "Study-In" As Teachers Strike

Most high school students with Advanced Placement exams looming in May are frantically studying during these last weeks of the school year. But David Song, an Aliso Niguel High School junior in the embattled Capistrano Unified School District of Orange County is more worried about having a teacher in the classroom than memorizing the date of the sinking of the Lusitania for his AP U.S. History exam.

That's because his teachers in the Capistrano Unified Education Association are walking out on strike starting Thursday, April 22.

safeLOGO.jpgIn the wake of their announcement, Song, the president of the student activist group SAFE (Student Association for Education) rushed to organize fellow students in a demonstration that would minimize loss of study time during the strike and send the public a clear message that students won't be ignored in what has turned into a high profile power play between the school board and teachers union.

"Students have to take a stand," said Song. "We can't just sit here and say, 'We'll let adults deal with it.' Even if we have only a little voice we might as well take a shot."

The roiling tension that has been building for months between the school district - which faces a $34 million deficit after state budget cuts and years of misspending - and the teachers union finally erupted this week. A back and forth debate has been raging over the board's decision in March to impose a 10.1 percent permanent pay cut to teachers' salaries, after refusing to negotiate with the CUEA union.

In a last ditch effort at reconciliation in the days before the strike, the board agreed to make the pay cuts temporary and to enter into new negotiations with the union. But their concessions fell short of CUEA's demands and they decided to go ahead with the strike.

The voice of students has been all but drowned out in the vociferous fury, so Song and some friends decided to address student interests with their group, SAFE which they started last January.

At the time, Song was studying Martin Luther King, Jr. and his philosophy of civil disobedience. Inspired by Dr. King's legacy of passionate resistance paired with gracious integrity, Song has led a committed group of students in targeted actions with a deliberate thoughtfulness and a precocious eye toward public perceptions.

"We're trying to get a message across to the public that certain things are unacceptable and we're going to protest that," said Song. "But if we just protest for the heck of it we'll just end up being seen as a bunch of stupid teenagers or crazy activists."

safe_inline1.jpgOn April 2 they organized a 400-student walk-out of first period to protest the board's decision to impose teacher pay cuts without negotiations because they believed the atmosphere of discontent it created among teachers was detrimental to student learning.

But Song was careful to advise students not to ditch if they had important things to cover in class and stressed that they should skip only one period so as not to skew attendance records that determine district funding. They also carefully maintain their distance from the CUEA teachers union, acknowledging it has taken some stances that are not in student interests.

In anticipation of the strike, Song and his group planned a different kind of action.

"We have to respond to this new situation that we have. Now that there is a strike it's not the same message," said Song. "We want to just try to minimize the amount of damage that's being done to our education at this point."

Rather than a traditional walk-out or sit-in, they worked with the principal to organize a "study-in", where students who wish to study for AP exams or other classes can gather in the hallways with like-minded students rather than be stuck in over-sized classes with substitute teachers and generic lesson plans.

Song is preparing for four AP exams himself, but he admits he's been a bit preoccupied with his role in the unfolding district drama.

"My grades are definitely dropping," said Song. "But what we're fighting for is something that's bigger than just me or just my class. What happens now is going to affect the whole future of what happens in CUSD."

In a letter to members of SAFE's Facebook group, Song urged his fellow students to show up at school during the strike, suggested wearing blue to show solidarity and offered some words of encouragement:

"We can do it, folks--you may think you're playing only a small part, but you'll be surprised: the public listens to students."

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When teachers strike, often they give the impression they strike for themselves and not students. The best interest of the students often appears to be neither in the eyes of the administrators nor the teachers.

Big Mike
CEO of Walnut Jail