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The Maya Angelou Public Charter School opened five years ago with the goal of teaching students what it means to be members of the labor force. “We wanted to find a way to help kids understand the relationship between work and school,” co-founder David Domenici says.
The pupils seem to have made the connection: On May 30, as the final bell for class blared at 9:15 a.m., the majority of Maya Angelou’s 85 students stayed outside the building at 9th and T Streets NW, staging a strike. For the next three hours, they paced the sidewalk, refusing to attend class until the administration had met their demands.
School officials didn’t exactly discourage the protest. “Some of the staff say, ‘It’s good y’all are standing up for yourselves.’ But they have to play both worlds,” says junior Monica Petway, 18.
The causes of the mini-uprising were many. Students are unhappy that during the past school year, school officials decided to let go four popular staff members for various reasons. The list of nine demands, which a student read aloud during the protest, ran the gamut from rescheduling the meeting of a committee that plans school outings to giving students equal say in the hiring and firing of staff.
But one of the complaints cut to the heart of the school’s mission: Students demanded “the immediate end of taking deductions from our paychecks for attendance [sic] and tardiness.”
Most Maya Angelou students spend part of their 10.5-hour school day working for one of two school-run training programs: the Untouchable Taste Catering business, which in addition to catering gigs produces three meals a day for students and staff, and the Student Technology Center, where students help run a community learning lab. The kids start out at an hourly wage of $6.15. But if they are late to class, miss a day of school, or receive detention, among other infractions, money is taken out of their paychecks.
Under D.C. regulations, employers cannot deduct fines or other charges from pay due workers aged 18 or older if the penalties bring the hourly wage below the District’s $6.15 minimum, according to David Colodny, a staff attorney with the D.C. Employment Justice Center. For minors, the minimum is $5.15.
Petway offers some sample deductions from her latest pay stuba printout featuring a spreadsheet. On one side, it lists possible infractions, then the amount deducted for each. An unexcused tardiness, for example, cost her $5. (On the flip side, Maya Angelou students also receive financial incentives, including matching funds for college, when they perform well.)
“This is the last place [students] have to turn for money, and they’re taking people’s money away,” says Petway.
On the subject of deductions, the students have a manifesto of sorts, an essay written by student DaVina Boley this past October for an advanced writing class, which the kids include in a small packet of literature made for the protest. “Your job should not have anything to do with school,” writes Boley. “Just serving detention should be the punishment unless you get the detention while you are at work.”
Several other students wrote similar essays for the same class. “The teacher told us to pick something out of the rule book we didn’t like and write about it,” says Petway.
The expository exercise was a bit too successful.
Administrators, however, eschewed a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown. In fact, after the protest, they quickly acquiesced to the students’ ninth demand, which called for a Monday morning emergency meeting with the school’s “leadership team”a group that consists of Domenici and several school deans.
At the meeting, administrators handed out their own written response to the nine demands. “[W]e are committed to working with [students] to build back trust and communication,” they wrote. So far, the concessions school officials are willing to make mostly involve forming committees made up of students and staff to hash out solutions to each of the remaining eight demands. The conciliatory attitude, however, was enough for many students to agree to return to class.
Domenici says students have always complained about the paycheck deductions, but that, as the student body has grown, forums for venting those complaints have become more scarce. “We have to build in natural ways for teenagers and adults to talk about what’s taking place in our lives, to create more clarity,” he says.
“I think the fact that our students did such an effective demonstration is a testament to our kids and that they take what they learned seriously,” Domenici adds, referring to a recent history section on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “At the same time, I’m a little bit sad, given what our school is all about, that they thought they couldn’t have worked things out with us.”
By Monday evening, the school was almost back to normal. The students had fallen back into their regular routines, except for a handful, including Petway, who attended a follow-up meeting with administrators at 5 p.m. After an hour, Petway ducked out early.
Later, she said that she isn’t entirely satisfied with the protest’s resolution. She dismisses Domenici’s growing-pains argument as “bullshit.” “What else is he going to say? He can’t stop us,” she says. “I’m waiting to see what they gonna do.” And if students remain dissatisfied, she adds, “I guess we’ll have to take it to another level so we can be heard.” CP