Law & Courts

Students’ Voices Chime In To Improve Schools

By John Gehring — May 12, 2004 6 min read
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A growing national movement is putting students’ voices—and their work—front and center in the push to raise expectations and results in schools.

While precollegiate youth activism traditionally has been confined to student councils, service groups, and the like, the new student-led initiatives have shown an acumen in producing original research and teaming up with community-based organizations to foster a more sophisticated type of advocacy.

“I think we are entering a new era of students’ rights,” said Meng Zhou, a 17-year-old student activist from Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore., who attended a recent conference on the subject. “There has been the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, and most recently, the gay rights movement. I think right now there is a new movement for student empowerment.”

Examples of young people’s active roles in trying to improve their schools are becoming increasingly common, fueled in part by backing from such prominent philanthropies as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the MetLife Foundation.

In Boston, teenagers at Brighton High School produced a documentary that featured candid interviews with classmates who wondered aloud if teachers really expected much from them. The film also exposed the school’s rundown restrooms and visited a wealthier, suburban school to highlight inequities in resources.

In Denver, Latino students organized Jovenes Unidos, or Youth United, to confront years of high dropout rates and low test scores at North High School. Students surveyed more than half their classmates at the 1,400-student school, and found that many didn’t feel challenged by their teachers and considered themselves unprepared for college.

They wrote a detailed report that charted an agenda for change. School leaders at North High responded. A reform committee of students, administrators, and community members is now working on carrying out the recommendations in the plan, including increasing the number of bilingual counselors and creating a “freshman seminar” program to get students thinking about college early in their high school years.

And when the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., board of education met in the spring of last year for budget meetings, members consulted a 149-page report written by students at Poughkeepsie High School. The students put together their own budget recommendations, based on research and survey information culled from almost 600 students in the school. When the school board approved the budget, members were impressed enough to allocate $25,000 for “student initiatives,” which has provided grants for several student-led projects in the district.

A new national initiative, Students as Allies, was launched last fall by What Kids Can Do, a nonprofit organization in Providence, R.I. Supported by a $200,000 grant from the MetLife Foundation, the group is working with local partners in Chicago; Houston; Oakland, Calif.; Philadelphia; and St. Louis to support student research and promote dialogue between school leaders and students.

Listening to what students have to say is integral to changing the culture of high schools, according to Catherine Pinot, the deputy director of urban high school initiatives at the Carnegie Corporation, which last month provided $225,000 to help fund a student leadership conference in Houston.

“If we’re trying to transform high schools, what better thing to do than to talk to young people?” Ms. Pinot said. “The hard work is trying to get adults to open up and value the expertise of young people. In the past, we haven’t listened to them. We are not going to succeed if we continue to use the old paradigm of adults creating reform efforts for young people.”

Aiming at ‘Ownership’

Monica Acosta, 18, a senior at Denver’s North High School, joined Jovenes Unidos last year and quickly began fighting to stop a proposed amendment to the state constitution aimed at ending bilingual education in Colorado.

The student-led group grew out of Padres Unidos, a community organization of parents who had grown increasingly concerned about the number of students dropping out of the predominantly Latino school in the northwest part of the city.

Ms. Acosta and other students wanted to find out why so many of their classmates were not successful. Along with the detailed survey that led to a report filled with recommendations, the Jovenes Unidos students visited a largely non-Hispanic white, high-performing suburban school.

“It was a public school, but it had so much more than North,” Ms. Acosta said. “Besides having more books and computers, I saw that students wanted to be in school and felt supported and encouraged. Most importantly, they felt ownership of their school.”

She hopes the students’ report, which is bolstered by national research on high-performing schools, will lead to better communication between students and teachers.

“On a normal day,” she said, “teachers don’t ask students about how they are feeling about their own education.”

Darlene LeDoux, the principal at North High, welcomes the input and has already adopted some of the recommendations by securing more tutoring opportunities for students and extending the hours of the school library.

“Students are an integral part of the high school, and we need to listen to them,” Ms. LeDoux said. “The challenge as a principal is we have many student groups, and I need to listen to all of them, but not all of them are saying the same thing.”

Many of the suggestions outlined in the Jovenes Unidos report, she added, were already in the works. The principal acknowledged that some teachers at the high school were hurt when they read the report.

“We have some of the best teachers around,” she said. “The most important thing is that people have a chance to dialogue. It can’t be adversarial. We all have to learn from each other.”

‘Untapped Constituency’

More than 200 student activists, educators, and youth community leaders from 16 cities came together to do just that last month in Houston at a conference titled “Students as Partners in High School Redesign.”

Liza Pappas, the youth-initiative director for the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, the Chicago-based national advocacy group that organized the meeting, said paying attention to students is long overdue in the movement to improve schools.

“Students are an untapped constituency in this work,” Ms. Pappas said. “A lot of adults are surprised at the level of expertise students have about schools. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, because students are in school every day.”

But too often, student engagement never becomes embedded enough in the culture of school districts to yield substantive change, according to Karen Pittman, the founder and executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment, an organization in Washington that produces research and helps train young people and adults for community activism. The challenge, she said, is going beyond a few meetings with students, or having a token representative on a council, to creating structures where students’ concerns can translate into action.

Her organization is working with 11 districts in California to begin building that kind of culture.

“Districts acknowledge they are good at soliciting information,” Ms. Pittman said, “but they are not always good at sustaining the conversation.”

Bernice Fedestin, a 17-year-old junior at Brighton High in Boston who helped produce the documentary about her school, said more candid conversations are now taking place between students and administrators as a result of the project.

“I know that some teachers might be offended by it, but I would rather they realize these are students speaking out and this is how we feel,” she said. “A lot of the students’ voices aren’t valued as much as they need to be. Students have a lot on their mind that they can share.”

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

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2004 edition of Education Week as Students’ Voices Chime In To Improve Schools

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