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Cornel West Vows to Fight Harlem School Closures

By Jeff Mays | December 5, 2011 6:20pm
Professor and activist Cornel West spoke to students at Wadleigh and Frederick Douglass Academy II in Harlem on Monday.
Professor and activist Cornel West spoke to students at Wadleigh and Frederick Douglass Academy II in Harlem on Monday.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Professor and activist Cornel West promised students at a pair of Harlem schools slated for closure that he would do everything he could to prevent the Department of Education from shutting them down.

West's vow came during a visit Monday to the Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts, which is Harlem's only performing arts school, and the Frederick Douglass Academy II, which are both on the Department of Education's list of failing schools.

"I want each and every one of you to know that any service I can render to keep this school where it is, just let me know," said West. "Dialogue, negotiation or protest."

West, a professor at Princeton University, was recently arrested with dozens of protesters after performing an act of civil disobiedience in front of the 28th precinct in October to protest the NYPD's stop and frisk policy.

West, who recently announced he would be returning to teach at Union Theological Seminary, said Monday's visit would not be his last.

"This is not the last time I'll be at Wadleigh. I'll be right down the street," said West. "Give me a call and I'll jump in a taxi and be here in a minute."

Parents, administrators and teachers at the schools slated for closure fear the DOE is interested in shutting them down to make way for Eva Moskowitz' Success Charter Network Schools. All three schools are currently or could soon be forced to share space with a Success Charter school.

"This school is under fire solely for the purpose of bringing a charter school. They are kicking our kids to the curb and it's unjust ... these kids deserve better," said Noah Gotbaum, District 3 Community Education Council president. Gotbaum said both Wadleigh and FDA II were doing well until recently, and added that even with some slippage, both schools still perform at or above the city-wide averages in many areas.

After giving students a rousing speech about discovering oneself and fulfilling a human responsibility to serve others, West said he was disturbed by what was happening in the city's public schools.

"The trend is big money shaking the whole nation," West said.

West exhorted students to live a life of self examination and participate in a life-long journey of learning and service.

"The fundamental question of all education is what kind of human being will you be in the move from your mama's womb to your tomb," he said,

He also urged students to drown out the noise coming from television and music and listen to their own voice.

"To be educated in a deep sense is to take your schooling and find your voice and be original," said West.

West's visit was the work of Wadleigh's long-time librarian Paul McIntosh, who has scheduled several high-profile speakers, including Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, to visit the school. De Blasio said closing the school would be a tragedy that must be avoided.

The potential of the schools' closure was also on student's minds.

Fatou Lam, 14, an eighth-grader at P.S/M.S. 123, asked West what students could do to fight the changes happening at their school. Lam's school is co-located with Harlem Success Academy V. She said many students feel cramped in the school and feel that they are losing a lot of the privileges they once had.

"I feel its not fair," Lam said of her school's current space situation. "He has inspired me to be strong and help out my school."

Jamal Augustin, 16, an 11-grade student at Wadleigh, said he was impressed that a public intellectual like West would come to the school because it showed that not all famous or rich people were selfish.

Augustin said that he hoped West' involvement would keep the school open.

"This is my home away from home because my home life is difficult, I come here and smile," he said. "There are alot of other empty spaces they could use."

State Sen. Bill Perkins said the DOE could expect a difficult fight if they recommend to close the school.

"We are going to 'Occupy Wadleigh' if we have to," he said.

Students also wanted to know whether West ever thought prejudice would end and whether the election of Barack Obama meant that things had changed when it came to racism.

West, who has been critical of Obama for not doing enough to help the poor and middle class, was more tempered in his criticism of the president on Monday, adding that there was a responsibility to "protect" President Obama from unfair scruitny.

But he also said there was a need to "correct Barack Obama when he starts leaning too much to the strong and powerful and not the weak."

West told the students that they had more power than they thought and to "always believe you can make a difference."

"None of us will save the world. We are not messiahs. But we can make a positive, strong difference in making the world a better place than we found it." said West.

Jorge Ramos, 12, a seventh grader at P.S./M.S. 123 said West' speech had encouraged him right then and there to follow his dreams.

"Dr. West inspired me, he encouraged me to do something I want to do: become a director," said Ramos. "I have to be bold and take risks."