Student Well-Being

Leading the Way

Student-run foundations across the country are empowering a new generation of teenagers to play larger roles in their schools and communities.
April 19, 2005 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 10 min read

Corrected: This story should have noted that the city of Cleveland mentioned in the story is in Mississippi. Also, the National Service Learning Partnership is based in New York City. Kids Consortium, which collaborated with the Portland Partnership, the United Way, and the Portland Public Schools to establish Youthink, is based in Auburn, Maine. Further, Youthink gave a $1,300 grant to the Peer Literacy Project. The grant went to a core group of student tutors.

Includes updates and/or revisions.

Sophia Njaa has strong feelings when you ask her about the latest school board debate over restructuring sex education in Maine’s 7,500-student Portland public school system. “It’s pointless to call it restructuring,” says Njaa, 17, one of two student voices on the city school board here. “It’s not going to be the same program.”

Sophia Njaa, 17, a senior at Maine's Portland High, is a student representative on the district school board. Youthink, a local grantmaking organization, worked with the district on a plan to have more youth perspectives heard at school board meetings.

Her school board is considering downsizing the $166,000-a-year program, which now supports three specialized sex education teachers and their materials. If the cuts are passed, the responsibility for teaching sex education will fall to gym teachers and social workers, an arrangement that Njaa argues could compromise the effectiveness of the program.

The teenage school board member, who was elected by a body of her peers last November to serve as a student representative on the board, acknowledges that cuts may need to be made. But she argues that drastic changes could have a significant impact on students who need access to a forum where issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, emotional abuse, and sexual assault can be thoroughly discussed and not just glossed over.

Njaa, with the informal support of 45 fellow students from Portland High School, has fought to preserve the program at the middle and high school levels by presenting arguments at school board meetings. The impact of her efforts were still up in the air this month, because the board had yet to vote on the issue.

The Portland High School senior, who wants to attend the University of Southern Maine next fall, is one of a growing contingent of students across the country who are becoming more involved in school decisionmaking through youth-empowerment programs. In Portland, Njaa’s school board seat was established in 2004 through a collaborative effort between the Portland school board and Youthink, a local grantmaking foundation started in 2003 and run by students who empower their peers by funding student-proposed community projects. Youthink’s goal is to promote adult awareness of youth perspectives and to encourage students who might not normally serve as student leaders to let their opinions on community issues be heard.

As a result of the collaborative, one student from each of the district’s two high schools is now elected annually to the school board. The two students serve the same terms as their nine adult counterparts, can speak during board debates, and cast symbolic votes on policy issues. Even though their votes aren’t counted in making final decisions on school board matters, each youth vote is recorded in the meeting’s minutes. And even without full voting power, Njaa says, having the adult board members listen and consider student opinions is a big deal.

Plus, the experience of serving on the board has set her life on track by giving her a broader perspective on how change is made. And graduation won’t necessarily mean an end to her voice on the board. The aspiring nursing student, who’ll turn 18 just before the Nov. 8 school board election, plans to campaign in the fall to earn a full-fledged seat on the board. If she succeeds, Njaa can enjoy the feeling of having full voting power.

Njaa’s experience is representative of a growing nationwide push by many organizations—such as the Youth Innovation Fund, an initiative created by the National Service-Learning Partnership, a New York City-based nonprofit organization, through a five-year, $5 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation—to get students more directly involved in school and community issues.

“School and district-level policymakers are realizing that … students need ownership of their education,” says Kenneth Holdsman, the director of the Youth Innovation Fund.

Like many student-empowerment advocates, he argues that there are huge disconnections between students and their schools and communities. Those gaps need to be filled in order for students to become critical thinkers, become engaged in what they learn, and play a more meaningful role as future citizens in their schools and communities.

From left to right, Jonathan Perez, 17, Hanad Muuse, 16, and Jonathan Mayorquin, 16, are producing a video to dispel negative images about their community.

To address the issue, the fund, which was started in 2003, awarded grants of $100,000 each to eight cities interested in establishing youth-engagement projects. The Kids Consortium, which is based in Auburn, Maine, and won its grant in late 2003, believed that the program would be a good fit for this coastal city’s increasingly diverse population. Since the early 1970s, after it was named by the federal government as an official refugee-relocation city, Portland—Maine’s largest city, with a population of 64,200—has seen an influx of immigrants, many from war-torn countries. The school district now includes students from Africa, Eastern Europe, South America, and Southeast Asia. More than 120 different languages are spoken by students who attend the city schools—and, as a consequence, one of the challenges facing Portland and its schools is how to integrate its mainstream and immigrant populations, and foster community understanding of the varying cultures.

In fact, an ongoing mistrust between native Mainers and their immigrant neighbors is the backdrop for many of the issues the consortium found to be important to students, such as diversity, homelessness, affordable housing, dropout rates, and alternative education. One major issue for students centered on the public’s view of Portland High as a violent, gang-plagued school—a reputation many students at the school say is unfounded.

To encourage students to express their views on these kinds of issues, the Kids Consortium collaborated with the Portland Partnership, the United Way, and the Portland Public Schools to establish Youthink, an 18-member student board, which has members from the district’s two high schools. The board members interviewed policymakers, school leaders, and students to learn about the key issues in the district. Using the results of those interviews as context, the board developed a grantmaking process for local youths.

During the 2003-04 school year, student members reviewed 12 applications and funded five student-proposed projects. One of the projects was a video produced by students to counter misconceptions about a local low-income community where those students live. Another explored the relationship between foster care and student homelessness, and that project plans to educate teachers about the educational difficulties facing students in foster care. Each grantee received up to $1,500 and technical support for project planning and resources.

But the process of giving grants, overseeing the use of the grants, and meeting the deadlines required by the Youth Innovation Fund was more difficult than both the adults and the students had anticipated.

“It was a very aggressive timeline for the [fund’s] grant,” says Tina Clark Edwards, a consultant with the Kids Consortium, who recalls that some students simply couldn’t cope with the demanding schedule and gave up. Others were pressured by parents to give up the project because they weren’t spending enough time at home, while many seniors ran into problems because they were devoting a lot of time to applying to colleges. And when the 2003-04 school year ended, the board faced a new problem: recruiting fresh members to replace those who’d graduated.

Keeping the grantees on track was yet another challenge for the board. During the 2004-05 school year, the board decided to fund an additional five grants. But because the original five projects had not been given firm deadlines and took longer than expected to complete, the new grantees were required to finish their projects within a year.

Finding committed “adult allies”—who serve as mentors for the projects—was another unanticipated difficulty facing the board and its grantees. One grant project, a cookie business built by middle school students from a low-income area, went through four adult allies in a matter of months, something Clark attributes to busy adult schedules.

Ashley Keiran, an 18-year-old senior at Portland High School in Maine, has been in foster care since she was 14.

“It’s definitely work,” says Edwards. “It takes an incredible amount of patience being the cheerleader.”

In Cleveland, Miss., another city that received a grant from the Youth Innovation Fund to engage young people in their schools and communities, project participants have encountered similar issues. “Cleveland didn’t have much of base for youth engagement,” says Sarah J. Leonard, the coordinator for the Cleveland Youth Council. “So this was really a lot of groundwork for us. [But] this project has opened doors for student and adult communication about youth voice.”

The 16-member youth council has underwritten a number of student-run community projects, including a $2,000 grant that helped 7th and 8th graders create and publish an educational coloring book for preschoolers. The book, which was drawn and written entirely by students, highlights well-known heroes of the Mississippi Delta and teaches about the Delta region’s history. Five hundred coloring books were distributed to preschools, doctors’ offices, and Head Start centers throughout Cleveland.

Although Cleveland youth-empowerment advocates have not managed to persuade school district leaders to have students serve on the district’s school board, district officials are discussing the possibility of establishing student advisory councils that would meet with the superintendent to discuss issues. “Young people want more input in curriculum planning so they’re more engaged with the subject matter,” says Leonard.

Julie Evans, the chief executive officer of NetDay, a national nonprofit educational technology organization based in Irvine, Calif., that focuses on helping schools use technology, couldn’t agree more. Her organization, which has been running an AmeriCorps program for several years that trains college students to be technology mentors in needy schools, quickly discovered through surveys that many high school students were frustrated with the way technology and other resources were being used in their schools. Students felt that their teachers were not making adequate use of technology, thereby hindering the student learning process, and that after-school access to computers and software was too highly restricted.

“What bubbled up was a sense of frustration among students that they had no voice,” says Evans. “We sensed that this was an ongoing issue [beyond just technology], and we wanted to give kids a voice in a large, high-profile way.”

To give students more of a voice on school issues, NetDay began organizing a student “speak-up day” in 2003. The three-week event allows teachers and students to hold interactive discussions about technology, civic engagement, and student ideas for improving schools. NetDay provides lesson plans for teachers to help run the discussions, and some schools have even used data collected from the event to make changes that better engage students in their own education.

In a small, narrow classroom on the third floor of Portland High School, students file slowly, one or two at a time, into Julie Criscitiello-Wise’s study hall. The room, decorated with big posters showcasing the names of different mammals along with the uses of verbs, nouns, and adjectives, quickly becomes a jumble of crunched desks as mainstream students and English-language learners pair up to read books and go over a variety of language skills from pronunciation to word identification and context.

In one corner, native Maine student Teal Arnold, 16, and Lily Labor, 15, a level 3 ESL student originally from Sudan, read over a text about the U.S. government. As they read, Arnold, a junior, stops whenever Labor pauses over a word. The junior then takes the time to spell it out on the blackboard behind them, quietly pronouncing or defining each word and explaining its context. Within a few minutes, the board is covered with words such as Constitution, Supreme Court, and Judiciary.

For students “just off the jet,” says Criscitiello-Wise, these kinds of opportunities are important.

Although this study hall is informal, a $1,300 Youthink grant is funding the Peer Literacy Project, in which a core group of student tutors work with English language learners. Students and teachers are also evaluating the possibility of working the class—which was the brainchild of a former Portland High student—into the school’s regular curriculum.

And that’s just the kind of student initiative that student-empowerment advocates would like to see happen more often.

“Kids can go through 12 years of education, and never be asked, ‘What do you think?’ ” says Cathryn Berger Kaye, a Los Angeles-based service-learning consultant. “[But when asked], they become thinkers, problem-solvers, and participants in a more democratic education process.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.

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