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Finding my future amidst the chaos: How high school made me a journalist

I had an epiphany recently. 

OK, maybe more of a realization, but it was from something I blurted out loud, and I believe the difference between a realization and an epiphany is the verbal aspect.

Anyway, last week during our editorial discussion on Miami potentially extending the standardized test-optional policy at Miami, I was talking about my experience at Parma Senior High School (my alma mater) and how, my senior year, I had to pay for my ACTs out of pocket. 

I then proceeded to go on a tantrum about how witnessing the inner workings of my school district firsthand steered me in the path I am going today. It’s why I became a journalist. 

It came out of nowhere. I had never connected those two events together until that moment, and our opinion editor Rebecca immediately breaked our editorial to ask me if I wanted to write a column. 

So, here goes. In the wise words of Academy-Award winning queen Bette Davis, click here (please).

***

I am from Cleveland, Ohio, more specifically Parma. Parma is a city 15 minutes outside downtown, and I lived there my entire life before I came here. 

When I was in sixth grade, my school district announced it would be consolidating the eighth graders into the high school to save money. So I went from being the last sixth grade class at Renwood Elementary School to Greenbriar Middle School for one year, and straight into Parma Senior High School.

We were promised this was going to be saving taxpayers’ money, and we eventually were blessed with a “grant” my freshman year to give everyone in the school MacBooks. My sister was in middle school and got an iPad. We had an assembly about it and everything.

I knew my school district had money problems. I wasn’t naive. My earliest memory was when we first consolidated for eighth grade, my sixth grade math teacher explaining to us what it meant that our school district was “in the red.”

Until one day in September 2016, I was sitting in my chemistry class and one of my friends came up to me and said that one of her teachers told her there were massive budgetary cuts on the horizon. A lot of teachers were going to lose their jobs and the entirety of the art department, Key Club, Spanish Club and other orgs of that nature would be eliminated.

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We were all confused. We thought everything was going to be OK. We began to feel angry that there was no mention of cutting anything sports-related, and like usual, the humanities were cast aside.

I remember us saying we wished we had some sort of proof so we could tell everyone what was happening.

Then, my chemistry teacher walked out of the room immediately. We all froze. Were we about to get in trouble? Admittedly, none of us were doing our lab, but we didn’t know if we had said too much. 

We continued talking and I noticed her walk back inside. Heading right toward us with a piece of paper in her hand, she walked past us to the lab area, placed the paper face down on the table and looked back at us. 

“Hi,” she said. “I’m gonna leave this paper right here, and we are going to act like you just found it lying here, but I think it has stuff you might want to see.” 

Then, she walked away and went back to her desk. We all looked at each other until my friend gathered enough courage to get the paper.

It was an all-staff email from our superintendent and our school board president that was sent to the teachers explaining the huge financial problems our district was facing. Not only did it lay out all of the proposed cuts my friend had mentioned for the next school year, it revealed information even worse. 

Recently, our treasurer and superintendent had both stepped down and our new treasurer and superintendent had begun to go through the figures left behind. He found that not only did the eighth grade consolidation not save us $11.2 million like our old administration projected it would, there weren’t any figures that described any money was saved from it at all. 

The MacBooks never came from a grant; the taxpayers paid for them.

"As our new Treasurer delves into our finances,” the email read. “We have become aware that our financial status is not reflective of what we were told by our former Treasurer. The lack of consolidation savings, the 1 to 1 technology costs, the over-estimating of revenues and underestimating of expenditures have had a devastating impact on our district's financial picture."

Our school district was projected to be $7 million in the red, and that was a best-case scenario if we passed our property tax levy. We rarely pass our levies. We were looking at cuts totaling $15 million. There was a school board meeting that was announced on Oct. 6, 2016 where they planned to discuss the next steps.

They were considering consolidating all three high schools in my district into one. 

We were dumbfounded. Class eventually ended, and we talked to my chemistry teacher after class where we exchanged a very powerful conversation that changed my life. She told us how angry she was that the students were going to be the last to find out and that this information should not be withheld from us.

I still haven’t forgotten that, and I often think about how she could have lost her job doing that. However, the way that things were looking, her job was already at stake. 

Word spread fast. 

The next day in my English class, we spent the entirety of the class period talking about the email sent to the teachers with our English teacher. 

I remember raising my hand and confiding that I was upset that I could not vote for a levy or have any impact in the decisions being made. 

She told our class that, as students, our voices were not only the most powerful, but the most important. If we wanted to be heard, we should go to the school board meeting.

My friends and I made plans to go. After school that day, I went home with my friend to her house.

All of a sudden, we heard helicopters swarming over my friend’s house and soft chanting coming from outside. 

My friend lived relatively close to our high school and the adjacent high schools, Valley Forge and Normandy, had marched from their schools to ours for this meeting. We immediately scrambled to go see the scene, and it was insane. People had made signs, there were news cameras everywhere, and the meeting had not even started yet.

I remember people had to stand outside because there were so many people there. Every seat was packed.  There were so many chants that I still remember. My favorite being “This chant would have been more creative if you didn’t cut the arts.”

Parents and students began booing as the school board stepped out. People shouted for them to resign and asked where the money was. School board president Kathleen Petro began the meeting and said some opening remarks that explained how sad she was to hear about the state of our district.

“Fuck off, Petro,” someone yelled from the audience. 

I couldn’t tell if it was a student or a parent, but it didn’t matter — we all felt it. And with that, she leaned into her microphone and uttered a sentence that became an inside joke for my graduating class. 

“I, Kathleen Petro, resign as school board president.”

This was the beginning of the meeting. The auditorium erupted in cheers and gave a standing ovation as Petro walked out the door.

My ears were ringing from how loud the cheers were. My friend eventually left the meeting to go home, but I didn’t want to miss a single second of it. I was angry just as much as I was scared just as much as I was enthralled at what was going on. 

Information was withheld from me. I was cheated, my parents were cheated, generations of children after me were going to be cheated. I felt I needed to stay so I could explain to my parents what was happening. 

A few weeks later, another member of the board resigned. We were granted an extension to amend our budget plan — however, due to there not being enough board members present to vote, we were not able to have a levy for the 2017 school year. 

I watched my senior year as some of my favorite teachers were laid off due to the levy not happening. My favorite Spanish teacher lost her job due to another Spanish teacher in the district signing her contract minutes before her, even though they both had been there more than 10 years.

Going through all that, I don’t see how there was any way I wasn’t going to wind up being a journalism major. Some might say it was even my calling that found me.

@kwiatkdm

kwiatkdm@miamioh.edu

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