Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

One Student’s Quest to Reshape Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — June 02, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness Video Resilience, Faith, and Support: How Twin Brothers Forged Diverging Paths to College
Twin brothers from rural Arkansas reflect on their path to college in the midst of the pandemic.
1 min read
Twin brothers John and Jonathan Easter walk together in their hometown of Bradley, Ark. a few weeks before they are going to begin college on July 30, 2021.
Twin brothers John and Jonathan Easter walk together in their hometown of Bradley, Ark. a few weeks before they are going to begin college on July 30, 2021.
April Kirby/For Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion Can College-Going Be Less Risky Without Being 'Free'?
Rick Hess speaks with Peter Samuelson, president of Ardeo Education Solutions, about Ardeo's approach to make paying for college less risky.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Whitepaper
The State of Career and College Readiness in K–12: 2021 Report
In this report brought to you by Xello, uncover how educators across the US evaluate their CCR efforts today and the implications the COV...
Content provided by Xello
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion What Will It Take to Get High School Students Back on Track?
Three proven strategies can support high school graduation and postsecondary success—during and after the pandemic.
Robert Balfanz
5 min read
Conceptual illustration of students making choices based on guidance.
Viktoria Kurpas/iStock