When the Going Got Tough, Why Did Ferguson’s Schools Go South?

Overlooked in the stories about the shooting death of Michael Brown in August and a Grand Jury’s decision not to indict the white police officer who shot Mr. Brown is the role of the public schools. What to make of public schools in Ferguson, Missouri, closing their doors on both occasions, while the local public library kept its doors open–and functioned as a school? Is this evidence of the depth of disenfranchisement of the Black community in one small city{{1}}, or does it suggest that public schools are no longer the vibrant center of community life?

Early on Monday, November 24, hours before the Grand Jury announcement regarding the possible indictment in the shooting death of Michael Brown, Ferguson-Florissant, six other nearby school districts, a charter network, two Christian schools, two pre-schools, at least two private schools, and the local campus of Washington University announced that they would be closed the next day. The seven public school districts enroll more than 55,000 students, including the 11,600 who attend the 24 schools in the Ferguson-Florissant school district.

The Ferguson-Florissant decision–made by an all-White school board–released those 11,600 young people from the obligation to go to school the next day, and it’s a virtual certainty that some of them ended up on the streets of Ferguson, where rioting and looting took place after the Grand Jury’s decision was announced.

By contrast, Ferguson’s public library kept its doors open, announcing in a tweet, “We are open 9-4. Wifi, water, rest, knowledge. We are here for you. If neighbors have kids, let them know teachers are here today, too.” {{2}}

This was a repeat performance. Schools closed for a week in August after Mr. Brown was killed, while the library remained open.

Ferguson’s Head Librarian Scott Bonner had no problem staying open to provide an alternative for parents with school-age children: “We had about 60 volunteer teachers come in here to help,” he told me. They were retirees, Ferguson district teachers and Teach for America corps members. That day only about 40 kids, ranging from preschool to middle school, showed up, but in August, when during the week schools were closed, more than 200 children came to the library every day to ‘do school.’

When news of Mr. Bonner’s decision went viral, donations began pouring in. Within a week, the library {{3}} received over $300,000 in donations, 100 times what it receives in a typical year–and 75% of its annual budget of just $408,000, according to Bonner. (The library is independent of the community and has its own taxing authority, so the local City Council will not be able to reduce its budget for next year.) As of this writing, the $400,000 barrier has been crossed.

Peter Sagal of NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” author John Green, and venture capitalist Marc Andreesen are among those who used their influence to support the library. Andreesen has 223,000 followers on Twitter, Sagal 114,000, and Green an astonishing 3,470,000.

The American Library Association sent this tweet to its 56,800 followers: “So proud of the @fergusonlibrary staff. Truly the heart of the community, serving everyone. #whatlibrariesdo.”

When I reached out to Tony Marx, the President of the New York Public Library, for his thoughts, he was on Staten Island, urging local librarians to remain open in the aftermath of another Grand Jury non-indictment, the Eric Garner case. Mr. Marx sent this email: “What the Ferguson Public Library did was an inspiration to us all and indeed relevant to library leaders across the country. By keeping open in a difficult moment for the community, the library displayed for all that libraries are indeed the centerpieces of civic space.” And, by the way, the Staten Island public libraries remained open.

But what about the schools? Back in Missouri, only one school district in the Ferguson area went against the trend and kept schools open. Rockwood Superintendent Eric Knost explained his decision in a letter to the parents of the district’s 21,500 students:

We believe it is important for us to provide the opportunity for a regular school day for our Rockwood students. In times of unrest and uncertainty, children need the security of routine so we want our families to have the ability to send their children to school. We completely understand that not everyone will agree with this decision, but we remind parents that it is ultimately their decision as to whether their children attend school today.

Regardless, we will be there, very visibly greeting kids and providing the option of a school day.

Why was “shut down” the default position for Ferguson-Florissant and so many other schools in that time of crisis? I reached out to a Ferguson High School Principal and the Board but was only able to talk with a PR person, who promised to get back to me. I’m still waiting.

I want to ask someone out there about the school’s obligation to its community and its students and teachers. Are libraries somehow different? Although no one from Ferguson would talk with me, three experienced superintendents responded to my emailed question.

Paul Vallas, who led the schools in Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bridgeport: “I don’t believe in closing schools unless it’s absolutely necessary, because kids need a safe place to be.”

Dan Domenech, whose 40 year career in education includes 27 years as a superintendent: “If I was anticipating that riots would break out and kids would be safer in school, I would have kept them open. If my concern was with the anticipation of the no-indictment and how that might lead to confrontations in the school, I would have closed them.”

Jack Dale, formerly of Fairfax County, Virginia, the nation’s 12th largest district, wrote, “I would tend toward not closing schools unless I believed there were safety issues for students — that to me is the only reason to close schools. If we were open, I’d also be prepared to use the decision as a teachable moment. I remember doing so during 9/11 and other major events of our nation.”

When Superstorm Sandy devastated the New Jersey coast, some schools reopened so that teachers and administrators could distribute blankets, food and warm clothing or provide shelter for suddenly homeless students. The generosity of teachers toward homeless kids is well documented.

One can only hope that the Ferguson-Florrissant School District, with its seeming disregard for its civic responsibility, is an outlier and that most public school leaders would not shirk their responsibilities to build community.

—-

[[1]]1. That’s basically a rhetorical question, because of Saint Louis’s and Missouri’s dismal history of race relations, including education.  The grim story is here: http://www.propublica.org/article/ferguson-school-segregation?utm_source=et&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailynewsletter&utm_content=&utm_name= [[1]]

[[2]]2. The library’s twitter feed is fun to read and follow. https://twitter.com/fergusonlibrary [[2]]

[[3]]3. Librarian Scott Bonner posted this virtual tour (long before the Michael Brown shooting): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtrUgdJZMQQ [[3]]

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3 thoughts on “When the Going Got Tough, Why Did Ferguson’s Schools Go South?

  1. Here’s more information about donations, just in from Librarian Scott Bonner: “Around 12,400 people have given us financial donations so far. Great donations are still coming in, and we appreciate every person who has given to us, and will put every penny to very good use.

    After repacking the donated books into larger boxes, it was something like 70 boxes of books. We’re crowdsourcing the cataloging among a half dozen catalogers now, some from across the Municipal Library Consortium, and others coming in for visits to help when they are in the area, and one from nearby St. Charles City-County Library.”

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  2. Safety must come first, no question, and I wasn’t there. That said, I think closing school was a mistake for two reasons. First, children need to be in school, learning. What’s the message when we close from fear (or from an inch of snow?)?

    Second, tragic as these events were, they presented a wonderful teachable moment, if you will, a great learning opportunity. That learning opportunity didn’t vanish days or weeks later, but it wouldn’t have the intensity that permeated the air then. And we must learn so that we don’t continue to repeat our mistakes.

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