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There's Something Happening Here

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"They were going to cut part of our future,'' says Hialeah senior Danay Montesdeoca.

The organizing started with a handful of students, self-named "the lunch bunch,'' most of whom were seniors. "It snowballed into something the administration and teachers did not expect,'' says Alfredo Granado, who teaches European and American history at Hialeah. "There were more students than we get for a pep rally, for crying out loud.''

At first Granado was worried that, with so many students and emotions so high, things might get out of hand. He was surprised and impressed to see what the students pulled off. "It was the most orderly thing I've seen run by the school this year,'' he says. "They really stuck to the issues. They were well-informed, and their anger was very directed.''

That down-home directness, in contrast to the big-issue student protests of the Vietnam-civil rights era, is a hallmark of the new student agenda. For example:

Many students have raised their voices in support of a principal or teacher who they believe has been let go unfairly. At a half-dozen schools in the Chicago area, students staged protests this year against local school council decisions not to rehire popular principals. And students in Western Springs, Ill.; Lawndale, Calif.; and Selma, Ala., didn't sit still when it appeared that race played a role in the firing, or failure to rehire, school officials. Private schools aren't immune; students in a parochial school in Ottawa, Ill., protested when a popular dean and coach was let go allegedly because his first marriage ended in divorce rather than an annulment.

Students have taken on other school policies and decisions. More than 700 students at East Junior High in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., staged sit-ins to protest a move to rename their school without consulting them. And in Elgin, Ill., and Lancaster, Calif., students rallied against restrictive dress-code policies.

Some students have projected their opinions outside the school walls. Junior and senior high school students in Topeka, Kan., earlier this year picketed a local dog food company, a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive, which has investments in South Africa. And more recently, a group of New Jersey students marched in front of the United Nations in New York City to encourage people to stop eating at McDonald's until the fast food chain stops packaging its burgers in environmentally damaging polystyrene foam.

According to experts, these are not just isolated events. Rather, they are part of a nationwide pattern of increased student activism. More than a third of 200,000 college freshmen surveyed in a recent study said they participated in at least one organized demonstration during their senior year in high school. That rate of activism is even greater than in the late 1960s, according to Alexander Astin, director of the annual survey conducted by the University of California Los Angeles and the American Council on Education.

As Astin told The Chicago Tribune: "There is a sense of backlash against the 'me-ism' and the materialism of the Reagan years, a sense that students must take on personal responsibility for remedying the ills of society.''

Although students today are aware of what went on in the '60s, observers say the wave of activism is not a revival of that era. "It's a different time altogether, and the issues are different,'' says Hialeah teacher Granado. "But the kids are the same. In fact, students today may consciously hark back: They want to have that feeling of involvement, but they need a rallying point.''

Some teachers may find the protests disruptive, but many think it is a good experience for the students. "Any time you can stand up and be counted is positive,'' says Hialeah drama teacher Deborah Mello. "It's better than sitting back and saying, 'There is nothing I can do.''

Granado doesn't know whether the Hialeah protest influenced policy--an austere budget was passed anyway-- but he says it taught the students something that schools don't usually teach. "Now they are very aware of their power, especially their voting power,'' he says. "They are willing to use it and know better how to use it.''

It's a lesson that some students have taken to heart. Says Hialeah senior Aldo Perez: "I learned not to be afraid. People sometimes believe in something but don't do anything about it. If you think something is right, you should go far for it.''

Elizabeth Schulz

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