Ferguson Teachers Use Day Off As Opportunity For A Civics Lesson

Aug 19, 2014
Originally published on August 19, 2014 7:30 pm

Chaos and unrest overnight have kept the National Guard in the suburban town of Ferguson, Mo., for a second day, and the local school district has canceled classes for the week. After two nights of violent clashes this week, neighboring Jennings School District is out of class, too.

So this morning, instead of being in the classroom, 150 area teachers took part in some unusual professional development: picking up broken glass, water bottles and tear gas canisters from the street.

"It says 'Defense Technology' on it," says social studies teacher Arthur Vambaketes, showing off a busted canister from his trash bag.

The unrest in this St. Louis-area town straddles two school districts — Ferguson and Jennings. Jennings had already started school last week, but since some of the district's schools border parts of a hub for nightly street clashes, officials called off classes early Tuesday morning and notified parents with phone calls and text messages.

"Our students have no buses in the district — we walk to school — so as a safety concern, our children come first," says special education teacher Miya Moore.

Jennings is also a district where a majority of students live below the poverty line. So many Jennings kids rely on free and reduced lunch that, even though classes are canceled, the meals are not.

"We're building up the community," says Tiffany Anderson, the Jennings School District superintendent. She has organized the teachers helping with cleanup, is offering meal deliveries for students with special needs, and has mental health services at the ready.

"Kids are facing challenges. This is unusual, but violence, when you have over 90 percent free and reduced lunch, is not unusual," Anderson says. "Last week, I met with several high school students, some of whom who are out here helping clean up. And we talked a little bit about how you express and have a voice in positive ways."

Around town, young people are expressing themselves. Over the weekend, Jennings District student Leslie Adams, 12, decorated a handmade sign with pink glitter. It reads "Hands Up, Don't Shoot," a reference to Michael Brown, the slain teen whose still-unexplained killing at the hands of police started the unrest.

The nightly police clashes happen around the corner from where Adams and her friends play. "At first I was absolutely, absolutely scared," she says. "But then, since I was watching the news, I understood that it was history that was going on."

Social studies teacher Arthur Vambaketes says he's going to be talking through this still-unfolding civic event with his students.

"I don't know what the answers are," he says. "There's definitely a class issue here, just as much as there is a race issue. There has to be some kind of legislative action taken."

The calls for action range widely in this community; demands for justice can mean so many things. Some locals want the county prosecutor replaced. Others call for the arrest of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.

For their part, the educators want to provide support during a difficult time.

"We like to tell kids we're a lifeline. And that's really the message that we're giving today. We're a lifeline. And everyone in this community is a lifeline," superintendent Anderson says.

This school year is not starting out like the rest — but teachers hope some lasting lessons will come out of it.

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In nearby Ferguson, Missouri demonstrations and unrest have once again delayed the opening of school. Today, district officials announced that Ferguson won't start classes until August 25. This morning, instead of being in the classroom, about 150 local teachers walked the streets. They were helping clean up from overnight clashes between protesters and police. NPR's Elise Hu reports on this unusual professional development day.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Arthur Vambaketes should be teaching eighth grade civics. Instead, he is taking some civic action of his own - helping clean up the streets where his students live and hang out.

ARTHUR VAMBAKETES: Well, our kids are off school, but we wanted to come and have professional development and then part of the day we're going to come here and help pick up trash.

HU: So far, as he and dozens of his fellow educators move down West Florissant Avenue - a street lined with boarded-up businesses - he's found broken glass, empty water bottles and the occasional tear gas canister.

VAMBAKETES: It says defense technology on it.

HU: The unrest in this St. Louis-area town straddles two school districts - Ferguson and Jennings. Since some Jennings schools border parts of the hub of street clashes and bursts of violence, the district called off classes early Tuesday morning. Officials notified parents with phone calls and text messages. Special ed. teacher Miya Moore says the situation's too dangerous.

MIYA MOORE: Our students have no buses in the district. We walk to school. So as a safety concern our children come first.

HU: It's also a district where a majority of students live below the poverty line. So many Jennings kids rely on free and reduced lunch that, even though classes are canceled, the meals aren't.

TIFFANY ANDERSON: We're one of several schools that are closed today, and we're probably the only school giving lunch.

HU: Tiffany Anderson is the Jennings School District superintendent. She organized the teachers helping cleanup, has kept meal deliveries going for students with special needs and is making sure mental health services are at the ready.

ANDERSON: Kids are facing challenges. This is unusual, but violence, when you have over 90 percent free and reduced lunch, is not unusual. You know, last week, I met with several high school students, some of whom who were out here cleaning up. And, you know, we talked a little bit about how you express and have a voice in positive ways.

HU: On neighborhood streets, young people are expressing themselves. Leslie Adams is 12. She's out of class because she's a Jennings student. With her mom nearby, she shows off a handmade sign decorated with pink glitter. It reads, hands up, don't shoot. The nightly police clashes have been around the corner from where she and her friends play.

LESLIE ADAMS: At first, I was absolutely, absolutely scared - like, I was so scared. But then, since I was watching the news, I understood that it was history that was going on. And for my age and kids younger, we can grow to learn our different histories about it.

HU: The social studies teacher, Arthur Vambaketes, says he's going to be talking through the still-unfolding civic event with his students.

VAMBAKETES: There is definitely a class issue here just as much as there is a race issue. So, you know, there has to be some kind of legislative action taken.

HU: The calls for action range widely in this community. Demands of justice can mean so many things. Some locals want the county prosecutor replaced. Others call for the arrest of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. The educators want to provide support during a difficult time.

ANDERSON: We like to tell kids we're a lifeline. And that's really the message that we're giving today. We're a lifeline, and everyone in this community is a lifeline.

HU: This school year isn't starting out like the rest. But teachers hope some lasting lessons will come out of it. Elise Hu, NPR News, Ferguson, Missouri. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.