This School Must NOT be moved: displacement and removal from the Fill-no-mo (the Fillmore) or Western Addition


POOR correspondent - Posted on 25 June 2010

Dee and tiny
Tuesday, March 14, 2006;

"I am a member of the get-along club," the excited voice of 17-year-old Tamicka Baker, blasted through the phone. POOR staff had been referred to this powerful young woman by her mother, Anitra Baker, mentor, teacher and parent liaison at John Swett Elementary School.

John Swett is one of the schools slated for closure and then subsequent merger with John Muir Elementary School by a 4-3 San Francisco School Board vote. For the dedicated, involved and engaged family and friends who make up the innovative, multi-cultural, multi-generational mix that is John Swett, this decision came as more than a blow; this is the devastation of a community.

There are other words that come to mind for the closure of this majority African descendent school, located at ground zero of the Fill-no-mo (the Fillmore neighborhood), from which 5,000 Black families and 200 Black-owned businesses were removed not so many years ago under the myth of redevelopment more accurately described with words like Diaspora and discrimination and destruction.

As parent and grandparent of a 2-and-a-half-year-old boy, my worldview and that of Dee, my mother and co-editor of POOR, are informed by Afro-centric values, which means we are already feeling the struggle to be involved and stay involved in the lives and education of children once they enter a Euro-centric public school system.

A system based on Western values of separation and independence, which inherently does not respect the direct involvement of parents and grandparents in the learning, teaching and mentoring process of a child while he or she is on school property is not based on respect for elders and interdependence. John Swett Elementary School is different, very different.

We are on campus with the kids as paid parent liaisons, said Anitra Baker. I teach them dance; my husband, Dawayne, is a coach, yard monitor and mentor. And then we open our home to kids on the weekend to help them with their homework. The school is an extension of our home.

After Dee read about the slated closure of the amazing John Swett, she was stunned. John Swett, Dee realized, was in fact an example of the Afro-centric village in action, complete with eldership and interdependence of families, children, teachers and community. The village that everyone refers to but never really understands a village that is taking care of its people, its children, its families this village is about to be dismantled.

The older girls who graduated (from John Swett) act as mentors and tutors to the younger kids, the dynamic Anitra Baker told Dee. Anitra and Dawayne Baker have seven children who are either attending school there or are alumni of the school and continue to act as mentors to the younger children in the Get Along Club, the Little Sisters with Soul and/or the choir that Anitra leads on campus.

Eldership, explained Dr. Wade Nobles in "The Nature of Mama", an interview in POOR Magazine Vol. 4, says that everyone older than you is responsible for your well-being and welfare. So it makes no difference whether it's your 16-year-old cousin and you are 9. That person is responsible for looking out for you, for teaching, for guiding. Everyone in the village is responsible for making sure that the next generation advances to the next higher level, to a person of good character.

Closing this school is a crime, declared San Francisco School Board member Mark Sanchez. In our search for answers about the closure vote, we sought out Mark, who, along with Sara Lipson and Eric Mar, voted to keep Swett open.

Mark outlined the stated reasons for the proposed merger of Muir and Swett elementary schools: First, it's overall budget cuts and the loss of several thousand students from the system. Second, it's a proximity issue. There are two schools in the Western Addition: John Swett, a somewhat small school which has an 81 percent enrollment, versus John Muir, which is a large school which is under-enrolled with 55 percent capacity.

Mark went on to describe another more problematic, highly controversial use for the John Swett School: Its proximity to San Francisco Unified School District headquarters makes it attractive for conversion to office space.

If the proposed merger goes through, it would be very difficult to replicate the programs and teachers and community that exist now in John Swett. I know of at least one dynamic teacher who is not planning to move (to Muir), Mark added.

Tragically lost in the merger would be Swett's extremely innovative arts-based curriculum, which, unlike John Muir's, is not based on the No Child Left (Alive) Behind scripted curriculum-inspired mandates that many conscious teachers and parents find harmful to students.

Mergers are not the only way to deal with these kinds of issues. For example, Ortega and Sheridan were not merged, because they are going to pursue becoming K-8 schools, Mark concluded. A sustained amount of protest can urge the board to bring the school up for discussion.

Looking further into the kinds of sloppy and uncaring education policy that could allow the devastating closure of Swett Elementary, I spoke to Susan Sandler, executive director of Justice Matters, a policy institute that works on racial justice in education,

Schools have social capital. They can be communities where people build up trust for each other over years of knowing each other. They may be places where people have ownership and passion for a project or program they created that makes it come alive.

John Swett, Susan continued, seems to have created an environment where Western Addition parents embrace the school and are contributing their time and offering its students their gifts of love, wisdom and talent. That kind of presence can make a huge difference in students educational experience.

Reflecting on Susan's words, I was drawn back to the original conversation with Anitra and her daughter, Tamicka. Almost simultaneously, they both said, in reference to what they do and believe about their school, its students and families. It's all about the love.

Community, do not let this school be moved! Get involved with the fight to keep it open. Call the School Board at (415) 241-6427 and ask them to reconsider and discuss the merger of John Swett. To support the parents and teachers of John Swett, call Dawayne Baker at (415) 424-6515.

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