It’s been a rough month for schools, as Lee Buddy Jr., the principal of Wade Park School in Cleveland, well knows.
He’s been guiding his K-8 students and teachers through the abrupt shift to online learning. He and his team had developed partnerships to get devices and WiFi hotspots into the hands of students and begin a robust distance learning program. Students, in emotional Zoom meetings, talked about how much they missed their friends.
Then, as May came to a close, a new trauma hit: protests all over the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
This would be a heavy load for any principal, let alone one in Cleveland, given its own troubled history of policing conduct and reforms. But in the middle of a lot of anxiety and sadness for students and staff alike, Buddy has seized on it as an opportunity to engage his students in an important civic question: What does it mean to be a Clevelander in a time of crisis?
Buddy had attended one of the protests in the city on his own, and had considered bringing some students, too, but nixed the idea over concerns that the protests could take a more dangerous turn. That impulse turned out to be correct. As Saturday’s demonstrations wore on, a minority of protesters broke store windows and looted in the city’s downtown area.
So late that evening, he thought: What if students could be involved in helping to clean up some of the damage?
Thanks to a program Lee had set up in at the school a few years back, it was a fairly simple idea to organize.
For several years, Wade Park has had a youth leadership program, called student ambassadors. It’s a three-pronged initiative focused on community service, empowerment, and academic supports. Students have to apply, completing essays and sitting for an interview. In addition to getting to craft awesome videos about their activities, they have extra opportunities to shadow local business owners, access study help, and even travel to visit their peers in schools in other cities, like Atlanta, Washington, and Chicago. They also, fortuitously, all share a group chat, and thanks to these close relationships, these students’ parents are generally trusting of Lee’s work.
So Buddy sent the query to the group chat, and by the next morning, was headed with a carload of students—ranging from raising 6th graders to rising 9th graders—to downtown Cleveland.
Most of the students had already seen images of the protests—and the damage—on Instagram and other social media about the protests. And while they were generally supportive of the protesters’ intent to bring focus to the overpolicing of black citizens in the United States, they did have questions.
“There have been conversations the last few days when everything started with the kids: ‘So, you understand the purpose [of the protests]? What are your thoughts on it?’ Most of them have said, ‘We understand, we support it,’ but then, they are also asking: ‘Why are they tearing up my city?’”
It’s a difficult set of questions that, of course, Americans all over the country are now asking themselves: Is the destruction legitimate if it calls attention to the reality of racism in America—and even if only a small number of protesters are engaging in it?
Buddy said he didn’t try to tip students’ opinions either way. Mainly, he said, he wanted them to see that, even in extremely difficult times, Clevelanders can come together to take stock, clean up, and heal.
“We’ve been using the hashtag #clevelandproud, and it’s just really about taking ownership of their city,” Buddy said.
They parked at Playhouse Square downtown. Buddy let students take the lead; in less than a minute or two, the broom-and-garbage-bag-toting students had asked a cleanup crew at the PNC Bank if they could help.
“And that was without me having to say anything,” Buddy recounted.
From there, they went to another bank across the street with major damage, where a grateful vice-president, annoyed about his late contractors, readily accepted their help. Across the street again to a pizza joint, whose owners dished out some pies for lunch as students worked.
Students were able to think about some of the implications of the weekend’s events: If a business is broken into, they can’t open, serve customers, or make money, for instance.
“Yes, there’s a reason folks are protesting, and definitely, we’d never push them to pick a side,” Buddy said about the conversations. “But we provide a platform for them to think themselves. And what are some ways they can positively impact or guide their decisions?
“It has pushed them to be more of a keeper of the dream of: ‘This is my city, and this is what I can do for it.’”
Image: Principal Buddy, left, and his students sweep up glass in downtown Cleveland. Photo credit: Thom Sivo. Courtesy of Lee Buddy Jr.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.