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Detroit Walkout: High School Students Suspended For Leaving School Start Freedom School

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Students protest in Clark Park, across the street from Western International High School in Detroit Wednesday, April 25, 2012. Students suspended for the action are now planning to hold a
Students protest in Clark Park, across the street from Western International High School in Detroit Wednesday, April 25, 2012. Students suspended for the action are now planning to hold a "freedom school" in the same park.

Students suspended for walking out of class at Detroit's Western International High School earlier this week to protest school closures and demand a better education, are holding a "freedom school" Friday in Clark Park, across the street from their official school building.

Students left class Wednesday morning to protest the closing of Southwestern High School, which many fear would lead to overcrowding at Western, and to demand more resources and greater teacher engagement for the district's schools.

Southwestern's nearly 600 students will be offered space at Western International and Northwestern high schools next year, according to the district.

Detroit Board of Education member Elena Herrada told the Detroit News that up to 180 students were suspended from Western and Southwestern high schools following Wednesday's action. Detroit Public Schools spokesman Steven Wasko told The Huffington Post about 100 students were suspended for five days following the walkout.

School officials at Western did not return repeated requests for comment.

Wasko said concerns about a potential lack of supplies at Western are unfounded. "Western was one of the schools with top scholarships awards, coming in after Renaissance and Cass" high schools for the 2010-11 school year, securing more than $13.9 million in grants and scholarships.

One Western student told The Huffington Post she could be facing more than a suspension. Raychel Gafford, 17, said she has been singled out by school authorities for her vocal role in the walkout and that the district's police have indicated she may face unspecified charges.

Gafford said students are organizing the freedom school for the same reasons they walked out. "We're sticking together and we're not backing down from this," she said. "We were thrown out of school for fighting for an equal education and we're doing this to show we're still going to be learning even if we got kicked out of school."

Classes at the freedom school will be held with help from community volunteers for the duration of the students' suspensions, including over the weekend.

A Facebook page promoting the freedom school puts the number of participating students at more than 150:

We do not understand why we are being punished with a loss of educational opportunity when that is exactly what we were fighting for. To further demonstrate our commitment to education, we will be attending our own school taught by ourselves and community educators for the duration of our suspension.

Gafford said the freedom school would cover a number of subjects, including the history of the civil rights movement, hip-hop, and art classes, and that space would be provided for students to make up missed class work.

Raychel's mother, Amber Gafford, 34, said she supports her daughter and other students fighting for a quality education.

"I wish there were more kids doing this," she said of their decision to walk out. "The children, they aren't doing it to be malicious to the school. They have a reason they're doing it. Their voices should be heard."

The freedom school is the latest in a series of recent student actions at Detroit schools.

Around 50 students were suspended March 29 after leaving their classrooms at Frederick Douglass Academy to protest the school's shortage of teachers. And hundreds of students marched in front of Denby High School on March 16 to protest their school's transfer into a new state-run district.

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