Radical ideas At the Paulo Freire charter school in Holyoke, learning is infused with ideas about social justice

Last modified: Wednesday, September 24, 2014

HOLYOKE — Upon entering the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School, there is a small room to the left with five flat-screen computers. These are for students who do not have computers at home. The room is also open to students who need extra help with their school work.

“There’s no stigma to needing help in this school,” said the school’s co-founder and principal Ljuba Marsh on a recent tour of the school.

The Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School opened a year ago at 161 Lower Westfield Road in Holyoke with 145 students in grades 9 and 10. The school also operates a food pantry that will deliver food to the homes of students who need it.

“Food security is really important to this community,” Marsh said. “If students aren’t eating, they aren’t learning.”

The school opened for the second year this fall. It is still building up, adding an 11th grade and welcoming more than 100 new freshmen. The school will finish adding grades next year when this year’s juniors become seniors.

Marsh, 67, of Belchertown, founded the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School last year with executive director Bob Brick, 63, of Northampton. The same duo founded the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in 1996 with the mission to offer students a college preparatory education through an arts-infused curriculum. Originally in Hadley, PVPA moved to South Hadley in 2005.

“We didn’t need another arts school. PVPA is doing a great job,” Brick said in an interview in his office two days before students arrived for classes earlier this month.

Brick said the idea behind Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School is to give students from underprivileged situations, such as those from low-income homes and who speak English as a second language, an equal advantage to that of their peers.

“For us, social justice first means access to great public education because in this country, that’s how you get to other things,” he said.

PVPA Head of School Scott Goldman said he does not believe the two schools — nor any other charter schools in western Massachusetts — compete for applicants because they each fill a different niche.

“We are the only arts-focused charter school or public school in western Massachusetts,” he said. “So I think the students and families who would be choosing to send their child to PVPA is a very different demographic than those children who would be going to the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke.”

In addition to academic classes, Paulo Freire students are required to take one class in each of the four “essentials” — technology, sports, arts, and social justice. There are 10 different courses that fulfill the social justice requirement, including one on the social justice of food that investigates who controls food in the world. There are classes titled social justice literacy and social justice science.

The social justice mathematics course is described this way: “Math is an instrument for detailing social justice issues and developing critical consciousness. Math can be used as a tool to examine and compare the inequities that exist by examining: population rates, corporate salaries, economic concerns, infant mortality rates, defense budgets, and demonstrate, in graphic terms, the way people are oppressed and marginalized. Math becomes an analytic tool to bring awareness to important world issues...”

The curriculum also includes a community service component.

Uniforms for all

Brick noted that one of the most striking differences between the Paulo Freire school and PVPA is that at Paulo Freire, both students and staff wear uniforms in the school colors: purple or gray. This creates an even playing field, said Brick, which is particularly helpful for low-income families.

Paulo Freire, who died in 1997, was a Brazilian educator known for his work, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” and who was seen as radical for teaching poor people to read.

“I don’t think it’s a radical notion to think everybody ought to read,” Brick said. “He believed in literacy for all and he believed that everyone should have an opportunity to learn.”

The school is mainly housed in the former Atlas Copco building. A mobile building with 10 classrooms was set up across the parking lot over the summer. Eventually, the school will move to a bigger location to accommodate 450 students in Grades 9 to 12. Brick said this is currently projected to happen in 2017.

About 250 students now attend the school. Five are from Hampshire County, with the greatest number of students coming from Holyoke at 175, and the second largest number coming from Springfield at 51. The communities that make up the charter school’s priority region are Holyoke, Chicopee, West Springfield, Westfield, South Hadley and Northampton.

Educators say they take great care to create a culture at the school where students who may have the odds stacked against them will thrive. Like at PVPA, Paulo Freire teachers are on a first-name basis with their students. They issue hall passes in the form of teddy bears, rubber duckies and duct tape purses.

“We have very high expectations for our students,” said English teacher Verónica González, 28, of Granby. But at the same time, “They understand it comes from a place of love. We always remind them why they’re here and why we do things.” Her students call her “Vero.”

Classes have no more than 18 students, and all students have access to their own Chromebooks. In a freshman math class earlier this month, the desktop background on the teacher’s Smart Board was a picture of Nelson Mandela and his quote, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Also that day, a 10th grade history class had the Democracy Now! website on the screen as students and their teacher engaged in a discussion about the violent events in Ferguson, Missouri. The teacher asked the class how interviewing a police officer in Ferguson might be different from interviewing a protester about the events.

In a classroom down the hall, another history teacher showed students examples of protest art, such as prints by labor activists. The teacher explained that part of the class will involve them making their own protest art.

The political lessons appear to be making the students savvy. English teacher Jacqueline Tuttle, 27, of Sunderland, who goes by “Jaq,” said, for example, that by the end of last school year, she heard students in the hallway saying to each other, “Stop colluding to your own oppression.”

New students, she said, are shocked at the amount of respect as well as individual attention they receive.

“They’re not used to that,” she said. “I’m sad that that’s not the norm, because everybody deserves dignity and respect.”

Students said they pick up on a spirit of devotion from their teachers.

“It’s different from other schools. They’re more one-on-one,” said junior Lydia Natal, 16, of Holyoke. “They care more.”

Natal, an honors student, is among those who will take advantage of the school’s dual enrollment program with Holyoke Community College, through which students can take classes and earn college credit while still in high school.

Freshman John Rivera, 14, of Holyoke, said he felt he made a good decision to attend the school.

“It’s very positive,” he said. “It’s good to see that there’s good people who can help you out.”

Both González and Tuttle recall the first day of school as an emotional occasion for returning students. Some of the bigger students lifted their teachers off the ground and hugged them, they recalled, smiling.

“They’re used to being yelled at and being suspended for every little thing,” said González. “They’re just so relieved that they’re not bad kids like they have been told.”

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.


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