Paris Washington and Terrica Thompson study the workings of a cell in biology class.
Photo Credit: David Joel
Jose Orea, a recent graduate from Roosevelt Senior High School, in East Los Angeles, is clear about a student's role in public education. "We're the ones who are most affected by any decision anyone makes," he says. "If we don't talk, no one will know what's happening."
When students like Orea take a hard look at their crumbling school buildings, overcrowded classrooms, and dwindling budgets, they tend to agree on one thing: If they want something done, they'd better do it themselves.
Taking the Lead
Perhaps that's why well-established student-activist organizations from across the country, such as United Students in Los Angeles, the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), and the Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), have had such success. From increasing school funding to improving school culture, the fact that students are leading the fight often garners more attention -- and better results -- than those efforts might otherwise.
"It tends to be adults who are talking about the importance of education reform," says Lizette Patron, communications and education coordinator at InnerCity Struggle, a Los Angeles nonprofit organization of which United Students is a key part. "When young people are the ones taking the initiative, you definitely get a different response."
As seventeen-year-old VOYCE participant Michael Jones puts it, "Who knows what's going on in the schools better than the students themselves?" Often, their unflagging energy and fresh perspectives are just what's needed to get a school system moving.
United Students, for instance, which began as a club in 2000 and now hosts several hundred organizers from four area high schools, was instrumental in the move to create three new schools in East Los Angeles. Eastside high schools are among the most overcrowded in the nation, but thousands of petition signatures and other actions spurred the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to select a site for a new high school, as well as an elementary school and an adult-education center. United Students's push to get funding slated for low-income and underperforming schools as part of California's Quality Education Investment Act earned Eastside schools a cool $200 million. And when organizers discovered that four-year colleges required classes for admission that their high schools didn't provide, they joined a youth-led districtwide campaign to increase the availability of college-preparatory curriculum.
The PSU, begun in 1995 and now running chapter and citywide campaigns at six high schools, has a similarly formidable track record. The PSU's investigation of Corrective Action II, the categorization of local schools that have failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress for four or more years, revealed that the private companies managing those schools weren't doing any better at it than the school district had done. As a result, the district ended up canceling six contracts. When a 2007 state-commissioned study found that 474 out of 501 Pennsylvania school districts were underfunded, PSU students conducted legislative visits, teach-in sessions, and public actions, ultimately testifying at a hearing of Pennsylvania's House Education Committee, which helped secure a districtwide infusion of $50 million.
Lawrence Jones-Mahoney, a recent graduate of West Philadelphia High School and now a freshman at Philadelphia's Drexel University, says, "Victories like that make me proud to be an organizer." Though adults support these groups, students direct and primarily staff them. Teens shoulder the brunt of the work, as well as decide what that work should be, often by conducting surveys among classmates to determine the most pressing -- and winnable -- issues.
This kind of survey-based investigation is the backbone of Chicago's VOYCE project. Run by seven neighborhood associations and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, VOYCE gathered nearly 150 students in twelve high schools last year to spend six months interviewing their parents, teachers, administrators, and classmates in an effort to probe challenges and propose solutions for the district's poor dropout, graduation, and college-attendance rates. VOYCE students are now tabulating the results of their research and forging student-run committees to help implement key recommendations throughout this school year and beyond. "Having an ongoing student voice will keep it relevant for everyone," says VOYCE participant and high school senior Denise Corral.
Diamond Smith says she's learned more in a few months at VOISE than she has at other schools.
Photo Credit: David Joel
Though student activists develop a strong social conscience through their work -- as well as grasp the importance of an excellent and equitable education -- many point to the personal and professional skills they've picked up along the way as the biggest benefit. "I've learned so many things, it's hard to pick just one," says VOYCE participant Michael Jones. For many students, the bonus from working with these organizations includes developing public speaking, leadership, and team-building skills, plus acquiring invaluable political savvy. "When I started as a sophomore, I was a really shy person," says Jose Orea of his three-year stint with United Students. "But as I became involved, I developed leadership skills and speaking skills. Now, I'm able to do presentations in class, speak to the media, and talk to the board of education without fear."
Much of the learning process here is trial and error, but students aren't sent into the fray unarmed. Both United Students and the PSU offer training for their members, either through regular meetings or special week-long events. In Philadelphia, the annual Building a Youth Movement (BAYM) program provides five full days of grassroots-organizing and skill-building workshops; in Los Angeles, United Students holds an annual Educational Justice Week, during which student leaders facilitate workshops for their peers on activism, college preparedness, and other issues, such as Electoral Justice 101 and Education Is a Human Right.
Participation also affords students the kinds of educational experiences they might not otherwise get. United Students requires participation in a fifteen-week Media Collective, for example, where students learn what role the media plays in activism, how best to develop sound bites and frame issues, and how to shoot, edit, and produce videos about their campaigns. PSU students run a biweekly radio show about relevant issues and perform at monthly open-mike nights -- the only youth-centered event of its kind in Philadelphia, says PSU executive director Nijmie Dzurinko.
Above all, the prevailing sense of camaraderie, community, and purpose keeps students coming back to all those lunchtime meetings and weekend rallies. "We give them a space where they can share how they feel," says United Students organizer Joanna Flores, a senior at Los Angeles's Lincoln High School. "That connection we give to students is something they don't get every day."
In fact, student involvement in education reform might well be considered a kind of education reform in itself: The motivation and drive that come from providing this kind of forum for students may address some of the crises they mean to solve, such as rising dropout rates or student-teacher communication breakdowns. In a tough time for public education, in some of the toughest public school districts in the nation, these students are jazzed -- and hopeful.
"I've learned that there's always going to be a struggle," says Jose Orea. "But unless there's someone who stands up and says, 'This is not right,' then there's never going to be a change."
Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.