Lessons from Audenried

I’m going to wade into the topic of what is happening at Audenried very, very carefully.

I have concerns with how the Renaissance Schools initiative is being deployed, but I am not reflexively opposed to closing chronically terrible schools. I have no idea whether Audenried falls into this category. I haven’t spent any time there, and I don’t know anyone who has in the last seven or eight years. I’ll leave the debate about the school itself to the people who know it.

Here is what I am absolutely clear about: there should be a debate. It should be vigorous and impassioned and inclusive. It would be appalling if students and teachers did not have strong opinions about whether or not their school should be reconstituted. It would be hypocritical for them to have strong opinions but do nothing about them. And it is deeply troubling that the school district would move so vigorously to suppress their voices.

Think about the opportunity that is being missed here. A group of students and teachers (I have no idea how large or representative) are sufficiently motivated by an immediate, real-world issue that they have amassed evidence to support their position, taken civic action, and broadcast their message in a highly effective manner. Why not engage them? If you are the district, why not present the evidence that Audenried deserves to be reconstituted, or that Universal (the manager that will take it over) will be able to do a better job of running it than the district does? Why not have an open forum where both positions can be aired openly and (hopefully) respectfully?

In the meantime, some hard questions should be asked in class at Audenried in the coming weeks. Who’s really motivated by this issue? Is it just a small group of students or is it really a school-wide concern? Why did it take such drastic measures for students to become engaged? What was (or was not) happening in the school up that point that had students so turned off? What other issues or topics would get students similarly motivated? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. But if I were a teacher there now, I would be wondering what I could do to sustain the students’ energy once the fervor dies down and the TV cameras go away.

In sum, this is a classic teachable moment for all of us. Inside Audenried’s walls, students, teachers and administrators should be talking not only about what the school should not be, but what it should be. Outside the school, the lively debate about the school’s future should be encouraged, and occur in full public view. It will be loud, chaotic, and messy. You know, like democracy.

Hope Moffet and the students of Audenried probably still would not win their argument with the district. But at least they would see that their efforts were respected, and that their grievances (and means of expressing them) were legitimate. Instead, they learn that dissent – perhaps the single most important element of democratic citizenship – will not be tolerated. And that is exactly the wrong message to send.