Student Activists Raise Voices To Upgrade Schools
When Erica Highsmith talks about her school, adults listen. She doesn't give them a choice.
That's one of the lessons she's learned as a three-year member of Youth United for Change, a local group that teaches leadership and advocacy skills to middle and high school students here.
Ms. Highsmith, who once felt like a lone voice in a school with myriad problems, has since led drives to reel in district technology money and to build a much-needed college-resource center at Olney High School in North Philadelphia, where she's a senior.
"The only way to get administrators to listen to you is to be part of YUC," said Ms. Highsmith, who plans to study the performing arts in college. "If you go to them alone, they never listen to you."
If a group of funders has its way, a chorus of voices may rise to join the Philadelphia students. Eighteen foundations are beginning a five-year, $5 million nationwide effort this month to fund community-based youth-organizing groups.
In general, few options like Youth United are available to enable students to raise their concerns and become part of a strategy to address them.
"We want youth to see themselves as part of a community, but, in a lot of ways, we are losing that," said Jose Carlos Montes, the program officer for youth development at the Edward W. Hazen Foundation in New York City, which is leading the national effort. "Adults don't engage young people in their decisions."
A longtime funder of youth-development programs, the Hazen Foundation in recent years has targeted community groups that train youths for roles in shaping public policy.
"This is not just about groups going in and raising hell," Mr. Montes said. "It's about helping young people gain broader perspective on their society, and asking what they can do about it."
Youth United for Change is an instructive model of how youth organizing works.
Operated out of a former elementary school here, the group is led by Executive Director Rebecca Rathje, 35, who founded the group in 1991, and Assistant Director Andi Meck, 28, a pair of veteran community-outreach workers.
The women rely on foundations, including the Hazen Foundation, for the bulk of the program's $250,000 annual budget.
Their approach is pretty straightforward. They find teachers who are willing to let them into their classrooms to talk about the program, promote their leadership workshops, and seek new members.
Roughly 600 students hear the group's presentations each year. Some 120 full-time members belong to the organization, or about 25 students from each of the four schools in the predominantly minority, low-income North Philadelphia area the group covers.
Students become adept at strategies for organizing their peers, such as conducting and using surveys to reflect student concerns. They also show sophistication in meetings with adults, often asking for time to "caucus" privately with one another over positions and strategy.
YUC finds members among students of all achievement levels. They are not the students who typically look for leadership roles, though.
"My teacher urged me to join. He knows I'm an outspoken person and I love justice," said Derrick Smith, a blunt and articulate 10th grader at Olney High.
One of his pet peeves is that more of his teachers don't make better use of technology. "We're in the digital age. Blackboards are obsolete," said Mr. Smith, who has lobbied for better use of technology in his classes.
Having an Impact
Despite their modest resources and membership, the students' well-researched and relentless efforts have yielded impressive results:
- The Philadelphia district recently doubled to $121,000 the aid it plans to spend on computers and other technology at Olney High School this year, largely as a result of YUC pressure.
"Had we not permitted them to advocate for us, the amount that we received might have been less," said Carlos Lopez, the leader of the Olney Cluster, which is one of 22 school subdivisions in Philadelphia. "Their presentation was 100 times better than what I could do."
- Olney High is building a college-resource center in response to YUC presentations, which included an architectural model of how the room should look. After agreeing to build the room, school officials asked the students to pick its new furniture.
- Group members won lighting from the city for a crime-ridden tunnel through which hundreds of students passed each day on their way to Kensington High School.
As freshmen at Kensington High in 1994, Murad Ainuddin and his classmates grew alarmed over stories of seniors who had failed to get into four-year colleges because they lacked the required coursework.
That news, coupled with the school's poor academic reputation, spurred them to work through Youth United to strengthen course offerings.
"There was not much expected out of us then. I could have slept through class and gotten A's," added Mr. Ainuddin, who is now a senior at University of the Arts here.
Ultimately, they rallied the adults to replace 9th grade general math with algebra.
As the new principal at the time, Edward Torres took up their cause. "The kids said, 'We are capable and we need to be challenged,' " recalled Mr. Torres, who is now the Kensington Cluster leader. "I used them to work on my agenda because we wanted the same things."
Elsewhere across the country, a handful of similar projects have been successful as well.
For example, the Kids First! Coalition in Oakland, Calif., helped spearhead a ballot initiative that led to that city's dedication of 2.5 percent of its annual budget to support youth development.
Meanwhile, the Boston Youth Organizing Project was instrumental in getting the Metropolitan Transit Authority to extend the hours of student passes by two hours, until 8 p.m.
And recently, 400 students convened by the Philadelphia Student Union drafted a list of target issues that ranged from lowering the cost of public transportation, to getting a student vote on the district school board, to placing a community ombudsman in each high school to arbitrate student complaints.
Eric Braxton, the director of the Philadelphia Student Union, another student organizing project here, said groups like his are crucial to making schools accountable.
"There aren't a lot of people who understand what it means to empower students," he added. "You get student governments, but they're about planning dances."
Mr. Montes of the Hazen Foundation hopes the new grant program will lead to more groups with a similar understanding.
Early interest is promising. Mr. Montes said that 261 proposals had been submitted for the initial funding cycle. Of those, 98 have been passed on for final consideration.
As many as 25 proposals are expected to share in the $1 million, first-year funding. The first recipients will be announced in March. An additional $1 million will be spent for one- and two-year grants in each of the next four years of the program.
Grants will range from $15,000 to $30,000 each. While most will go to established organizing groups, a portion will be directed to emerging groups.
"The foundation wants to make youth organizing a fundamental component of youth development," Mr. Montes said. "We are committed to developing a new generation of grassroots leaders."
Not everybody in schools, though, embraces young activists.
Some school leaders in Philadelphia said they were warned about Youth United for Change and were told that the group could not be trusted.
"Some people feel they are teacher bashers," Mr. Torres said. "Not really. They just brought attention to the idea that some teachers don't care, and they are right."
He noted that some teachers have referred to YUC as "YUCK."
Mr. Torres acknowledged that there had been instances in which YUC students openly disrespected teachers—perhaps viewing such behavior as legitimate in their new activist roles. When he reported the behavior to Ms. Rathje, the questionable conduct ended, he said.
Part of the mistrust stems from the fact that the adult organizers are not part of the school system, and don't respond to its pressures.
Ms. Rathje, who has been escorted out of at least one school by an assistant principal, said that such independence is key. She has even moved meetings out of schools so that they could not be disrupted or overseen by staff members.
On the other hand, principals have been allies, teaching her students about school budgets and even asking for help on some problems they themselves had failed to remedy.
"Until some people see the students at work, they don't get it," Ms. Rathje said. "I don't think they realize the potential."
Despite the detractors, Youth United for Change has fans in high places, including Pedro Ramos, the president of the Philadelphia school board. A former student activist himself, Mr. Ramos argues that adults should be attentive to vigorous student involvement, not intimidated by it.
"If you are secure in your own leadership skills, you draw out the strengths in the organization," he said. "In this business, you can usually use all the help you can get, and these are young people trying to make their schools better."
Vol. 20, Issue 18, Pages 1, 17Published in Print: January 17, 2001, as Student Activists Raise Voices To Upgrade Schools