Chances are anyone driving by a school or college campus in the Northern San Joaquin Valley on Thursday heard honking car horns and saw teachers and students holding SOS signs.
Valley students and educators joined nationwide protests that were meant to rally support for schools and spread awareness about the impact of budget cuts.
Elementary and middle schools across Stanislaus County, as well as Modesto Junior College and California State University, Stanislaus, participated in events billed as part of a National Day of Action for Public Education.
Schoolchildren at Agnes Baptist Elementary in north Modesto wore arm floaties and teachers used an anchor to symbolize how the public education system is sinking.
Teachers at Fremont Elementary School in central Modesto held signs and handed out fliers to parents dropping off children for school. High schools spread the word at open house nights this week.
"It's not a protest against the (Modesto City Schools) district. It's a joint effort by all groups. It's a protest with the state and budget cuts that are destroying public education," said Gary McBride, a second-grade teacher at Fremont School. "I don't think parents understand the severity of the cuts."
Most valley public schools will see a reduction in support programs such as tutoring and summer school and an increase in class sizes and fees to play sports or join band.
And college students are noticing fewer classes and higher fees.
"I know there's supposed to be cuts to librarians, nurses and teachers, and they're adding kids to classrooms," Fremont school mom Danita Thomson said. "It concerns me because our kids only have one shot at this. We have to set our priorities. Our kids are our priority for tomorrow."
At Turlock's Dutcher Middle School, seventh-grader Jacob Mabie, 12, held up a sign made by his mom, a teacher
at Turlock High: "Education Cuts Never Heal."
The fury over state funding cuts led to the formation of the Stanislaus County Education Coalition, which brings together seven local education groups of teachers, staff, parents, board members and administrators to lobby on behalf of schools and students.
"This is not a demonstration or a protest," county schools Superintendent Tom Changnon told about 50 onlookers at the coalition's launch Thursday. "We are coming together to support constructive approaches to ensuring public education is a priority and that it receives consistent and adequate funding."
The group will lobby for restructuring the state funding system for education.
Rallies at college campuses
At CSU, Stanislaus, a crowd of up to 350 at times visited booths, heard speakers and carried or posted signs including "Big Classes Suck," "They Say Cut Back. We Say Fight Back!" and "Education Is a Right."
Police and volunteers from campus law enforcement kept an eye on the proceedings, but didn't have to take any action. Students rallying at other universities have been arrested throughout the week.
Student organizer Celeste Mitchell said the day achieved its goal of educating students and the community about what's happening at CSU, Stanislaus.
"Fees keep going up, but nothing else is going up and people can't get their classes," she said. "What I paid for a whole year in 2007, I paid for just one semester this year."
Senior Jesse Duran said with the cutbacks, classes are harder to get, and those he can get into are overflowing.
"Students are packed kind of like tuna," he said, adding that he would have graduated last semester, but with the cutbacks he couldn't get one business math class he needed.
Over at Modesto Junior College, student leaders held a daylong rally to explain the proposed cuts at community colleges. Vice president of the Student Senate, Carlos Fierros, told students that funding for support services was being slashed.
For example, state community colleges have seen funding for basic skills classes axed by 40 percent. Nearly 80 percent of MJC students are taking one or more of those remedial classes.
"People know it's bad, but I don't think they know how bad it can get or it's been proposed to get," said Fierros, who was also enlisting students to sign up for a rally at the state Capitol on March 22. They will join college students from all over the state, including CSU, Stanislaus, to voice their concerns.
The protests in Stanislaus County were mellow compared with some of those taking place across the country.
At least 15 protesters were arrested by police at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee after as many as 150 students gathered at the student union, then moved to an administrative building to deliver petitions to the school chancellor.
At the University of California at Berkeley, a small group of protesters formed a human chain blocking a main gate to the campus. Later in the day, hundreds gathered for a peaceful rally.
In Oakland, protesters clambered onto Interstate 880 near downtown Oakland just before 5 p.m., forcing the closure of the freeway in both directions for more than an hour and causing traffic to back up for miles.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
People who want to contact their local legislators about education budget cuts can call 866-268-4334 — they'll be asked to type in their ZIP code and will be directed to their representative's office.
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2343.