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School Boycott Considered in St. Louis

September 6, 2003

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ In the state’s largest school district where opening-day truancy long has been a thorn, a flap over a move to close 16 schools and lay off 1,400 workers has some parents mulling whether to keep their kids out of the first day of classes.

On Sunday night, the eve of the first day of school, competing rallies are planned.

Boycott backers will be joined by activist and Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton to protest school closings. In the other demonstration, locals will promote the message that emptying classrooms on purpose does more harm than good.

Complicating matters are ongoing contract talks with teachers, whose union has authorized its executive board to continue negotiating with the district’s management team. The union agreed to extend its existing contract until midnight Friday.

Missouri teachers are barred from striking. But Mary Armstrong, chief of the American Federation of Teachers Local 420, has hinted that ways to show job dissatisfaction could include teachers heading home immediately after each school day _ without devoting time to sports and clubs.

In urging the boycott, local radio personality Lizz Brown said during her WGNU-AM morning drive-time program Friday: ``We are at war.″ The district that hired an interim management firm to right the 40,000-student system, she claimed, is setting up the mostly black students to fail.

``We’re changing the world right now. We can take them,″ she said, pressing listeners to rise up and shut down the school district. ``We need a groundswell. We need the world to shake. We need the world to quiver with our footsteps.″

To the school board’s president, intentionally keeping kids out of class ``is wrong.″

``We’ve made some tough decisions, and everyone has the right to express (disagreement),″ Darnetta Clinkscale said. ``But it’s clearly a wrong thing for adults to tell children not to go to school.″

Come Monday, she said, ``we’re expecting the schools to be ready, teachers in the classroom and students there ready to learn.″

The buildup to Monday has bubbled for months, since the district agreed to pay New York-based Alvarez & Marsal $5 million to run the district for up to a year. The management team has said the system was $90 million in the red.

First-day truancy isn’t a new problem _ in some schools, nearly four in 10 children skipped classes on the opening day of last school year. But a boycott would almost certainly make matters far worse.

Hearing rumblings of the boycott, city and local school officials last month announced a ``First Day, Every Day″ push to get students to classes, noting that truancy can cost the district thousands of dollars in state aid, which is based partly on enrollment.

Among other things, the effort offers free round-trip tickets on public-transit to allow parents to attend first-day classes to get their children settled into classrooms.

A nonprofit agency called ARCHS _ Area Resources for Community and Human Resources _ has been arranging for at least 16 Big Brothers/Big Sisters volunteers to escort children with long walks to four specific schools, spokeswoman Lisa Potts said. Those volunteers eventually would be replaced by citizens willing to undergo background screenings, she said.

``I don’t think anyone should be sending the message to young people that missing the first day of school is wise,″ said the Rev. Earl Nance Jr. of the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition. The coalition is behind the get-to-school rally.

``I say, ’Parents get up and get your kids to school,‴ he said, saying that absenteeism during opening day last year _ 73 percent of those enrolled showed up _ cost the district more than $600,000 in state money.

Armstrong’s union has urged parents to send their children to classes _ prodding Willie Hynes says he didn’t necessarily need when it came to his two 9-year-old grandsons, Jahi Hynes and Antonio Brown.

``There’s no debate with me _ they want to go to school, and I want to see them go to school,″ said Willie Hynes, 70.

``I’m ready to see all my friends,″ Jahi said. ``I’m ready for school.″

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On the Net:

St. Louis Public Schools, http://www.slps.org

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