Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

One Student’s Quest to Reshape Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — June 02, 2016 4 min read
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Andrew Brennen wants students to play a bigger role in their education.

As Andrew Brennen crisscrosses the country listening to high school students, he is trying to build a huge wave of sound: the sound of students raising their voices to make school better.

Brennen, 20, is on a national tour to engage 10,000 high school students in conversations designed to help them claim powerful roles in their education. The field director for the activist group Student Voice, Brennen has been catching buses and trains from city to city since February, often sleeping on friends’ couches, as he meets with teenagers in their schools to talk about what works there, and what doesn’t. He plans to keep doing it until December.

“The goal of our tour is to amplify and elevate all students’ voices, to shift their confidence about the role they can play in their schools,” he said in an interview from San Francisco.

He begins those discussions by asking students to tell him things about their school that adults don’t know. Typically, students start out with little to say, Brennen said. He walks them through the Student Bill of Rights, which Student Voice created to highlight key areas of school life that students can influence, from fair testing and use of technology to free expression, safety, and well-being. Bit by bit, conversation will build.

“By the end of the roundtable, when I ask them again what adults don’t know about their schools, they have so much to say they’re tripping over themselves,” Brennen said. “It’s because they’ve started learning to think critically about school.”

Brennen is building on activism skills he learned as a high school student in Kentucky, where he worked with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence to infuse state policy with student input. He later formed a student-voice team for the committee whose members, from middle school through college, have pushed state lawmakers for more education funds.

To help “create space” for student empowerment nationally, Brennen decided to take a year off from his communications and journalism studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and work with Student Voice. Since its founding four years ago, Student Voice has been convening weekly #StuVoice Twitter chats to facilitate students sharing their experiences. It is supporting Brennen’s trip with grants and donations from foundations, corporations, and individuals.

Expanding the Movement

But the organization wanted to expand its connections with students, building them face to face, state to state, to reach more students. The White House heard about the plan to dispatch Brennen on a national tour and invited him to publicize it—and the need for a powerful student role in education—at a White House gathering on “next generation” high schools last November.

Andrew Brennen visits with Akbar Khan, a student at the University of California, Berkeley.

As he works his way around the country, Brennen says he hears certain themes consistently: Students feel powerless over most things in their school lives, from curriculum to school governance. They hate that their schools look and feel so much like prisons, with bland colors of paint on the walls, bars on the windows, and armed guards by the doors. And many are unhappy that they don’t see their own diversity mirrored in the teaching and administrative staffs at their schools. That “lack of shared experience” makes it tough for students to feel understood and supported by their teachers, Brennen said.

Everywhere he visits, he tries to connect students in the roundtable discussions with existing activist groups and to facilitate concrete plans for projects. But he acknowledges that it’s often an uphill road; turnover among student leaders is high and projects difficult to sustain.

#StudentsSpeakUp

Students, what improvements would you make to schools? Share your responses on social media with the hashtag #StudentsSpeakUp.

He’s inspired by the conversations he’s had, though, and the bits of help he’s been able to offer to the youth projects getting started. There’s the South Carolina high school senior, Merrit Jones, who set up a nonprofit, Student Space, to help students organize for improvement in their schools and at the Statehouse.

There’s Ana Little-Sana, a San Diego 16-year-old who’s pushing to get a bill passed to change the California constitution to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local school board and community college elections. And there’s the Kentucky budget, which includes $15 million for needs-based scholarships for a projected 8,000 students. Students played a pivotal part in restoring that funding.

Student Voice has been assembling the faces and stories of students like those into a montage called Students of America. Brennen hopes to combine their stories with research data and the Student Bill of Rights to produce a kind of “state of the schools” report at the end of the year. And he might turn his journey into a podcast series. Who knows? It’s a work in progress. And he hopes the seeds of student activism strewn during his tour will take root.

“When you sit down and create space for students to think critically about school, it’s often the first time they’ve been given the opportunity to do that,” he said. “And it’s a powerful thing.”

Coverage of trends in K-12 innovation and efforts to put these new ideas and approaches into practice in schools, districts, and classrooms is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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