I fought to keep my school from closing. But at what cost?

By Neema Avashia

My gloves came off the day representatives of my school district told us they would be closing our school, the McCormack Middle on Columbia Point. Our students would be sent to a turnaround high school that had never taught middle school students.

Recently arrived immigrant students in language-specific programs, which the high school did not offer, would be dispersed across the city. As for our staff, the representative from Human Capital glibly told us, “We have no plan for you.”

What does it mean when the school system that you’ve poured your heart into doesn’t have the decency to consider a thoughtful transition plan before making the decision to close your school?

It means they never saw you as human in the first place.

It means that your job, then, is to make it impossible for them to look away from your humanity.

I went home from work that afternoon and opened a Twitter account. Opponents of other district proposals had successfully used Twitter to shame city leadership into changing course.

“I am a @McCormackMiddle teacher,” my first tweet read. “Today the district announced they will be closing my school, and I am left full of questions.”

Once I began, there was no stopping. I knew that if the McCormack closed, I would not be a teacher anymore. That the work it took to build these relationships, and this community, was not something I could take up a second time under the scepter of further closures.

On Twitter, I relentlessly poked holes in the plan: BuildBPS was founded on the premise of renovating pre-WWII buildings, yet our building was constructed in 1968. Multiple schools have failing heat systems and leaking roofs, but our building had received a new boiler, windows and roof within the last ten years. BuildBPS purported to prioritize the most vulnerable students, yet disrupted the education of our English Language Learners.

My recklessness knew no bounds.

I went before the Boston School Committee and announced, “I’m here to give you a history lesson,” then reminded them that our students had merged with a turnaround previously — the elementary school next door — and that doing so had placed the elementary school under even higher scrutiny from the state. I delivered annotated copies of Eve Ewing’s book, «Ghosts in the Schoolyard» — which analyzes school closure decisions in Chicago — to over 15 district leaders.

In her book, Ewing writes, “A fight for a school is never just about a school. A school means the potential for stability in an unstable world, the potential for agency in the face of powerlessness, the enactment of one’s own dreams and visions for one’s own children. Because ... you want to feel that your school is your school.

“ ... You want to feel that the rules are fair, not that you’re playing a shell game. You want to feel like a citizen. So you fight.”
And fight we did.

Our students lobbied city councilors and our newly elected congresswoman, Ayanna Pressley. They did interviews with local journalists, from WBUR to the Boston  Globe. They were featured on a nationally-distributed podcast. They created online petitions and their own Twitter accounts. “Somos panteras de la corazon” became their tagline. “We are panthers by heart.”

During the day, I taught my lessons, communicated with families, provided feedback on student work, as expected. But at night, I began my second job: community organizer. I worked with colleagues to plan school committee testimony, disrupt district meetings and lobby elected officials. I talked for hours with advocates. I leveraged relationships with journalists, with politicians, with non-profit partners.

And all of it, I will admit, was completely out-of-bounds.

But how do you stay within the bounds of professionalism when you are not treated as a professional? Does being professional mean accepting a terrible plan simply because it comes from your superiors? Or is there a higher kind of professionalism --one rooted in equity, rather than obedience, that drives us to fight for a better plan?

This year, both Ellen Gallagher, the whistleblower who publicized the use of solitary confinement in detention centers, and Rachael Rollins, the new Suffolk County District Attorney, visited my students. Both women work within the justice system but refuse to be complicit in the harm that the justice system enacts, and actively speak out about reform.

I once thought professionalism got you a seat at the decision-makers table. Now I wonder if the highest form of professionalism is not about obedience or compliance, but actually behaving ethically. It’s a question that many of us, from Wayfair employees to whistle-blowing Border Patrol agents, seem to be weighing these days.

The district reversed course on their plan and granted our three asks: Our school community will be kept together during the renovation. We will be the co-architects of a merger with a high school and will return to the building after it is renovated. But it’s hard not to wonder about the potential personal costs of this victory moving forward.

And yet, a week before school ended, I received a thank you letter from a former student. In the last paragraph of her letter, she wrote, “You’ve always been an amazing, strong fighter and you taught me to be like that, too. Thank you for fighting both for and with me.”
If that’s the lesson that young people have learned from this experience, then every expense I have incurred over the past year — the loss of time, the loss of sleep, the damage to my professional reputation — has been profoundly worth it.

This commentary first appeared on the website of WBUR 90.9FM on July 3. The Reporter and WBUR share content as part of an ongoing partnership between the two news organizations.