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Opinion: Youth organizing is vital for real high school change

Students may build power by coming together outside of official channels.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The following article is excerpted from Calling on Youth, an online zine produced by the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform (www.crosscity.org), featuring stories, analysis, and lessons learned from their 2004 “Students as Partners in High School Redesign” conference.

People often complain about students’ attitudes about schools. What they fail to realize is that many students feel that these schools do not belong to them – so why should they care? For effective change to happen, students must feel a sense of ownership of their schools. This requires them to have a real voice in decision-making.

While we are pleased that many people are looking at how to involve students in their schools, we are also concerned that many only look at official ways to engage students in the school districts’ decision-making structures such as student governments and putting students on school design committees. This is important work. But we believe that results will be limited without groups of students who are separate from school district bureaucracies and working to hold their schools accountable.

In the last ten years, youth organizing groups that do exactly that have been springing up across the country. For youth engagement to have a real impact, engagement strategies that are inside and outside of official school structures must be used together.

There are several things that make organizing different from internal school district strategies for youth engagement. Typically, student government does not take on the major problems in schools, settling for planning dances or doing community service projects. Adults usually decide which areas of the school are appropriate for these students to be involved in and which are not. When students ask for things in school and the administration says no, they accept that. Even when these groups are supported by adults with the best of intentions, these adults still work within the school bureaucracy. This means that there are certain issues that they cannot address, or the program might risk losing funding.

There are many things that groups that are not part of the school district can do that student governments and others linked to districts cannot. Organizing groups tend to focus on developing leadership skills.

In the Philadelphia Student Union, our members go through a leadership development program. It helps students understand the root causes of social problems and how these issues are interconnected. Participants learn concrete leadership skills like public speaking, outreach, working with the media, and community organizing strategies. Finally, students learn about the history of public education, learning theory, and how to analyze the problems in their schools.

When student government sponsors ask students what they want to work on, most students have no experience with anyone expecting them to challenge the school structure, nor do they have analysis needed to decide which issues to address. This means that they often end up working on surface issues that do not address the central problems of their schools.

Our experience, however, has been that with good training and support, students can take on serious issues. For example, one of our chapters organized a campaign to ensure meaningful and engaging instruction. This included having students run a professional development session for all of the teachers in their school. At another school, when students found out that their school was scheduled to get a new building, they began researching effective high school reform models and wrote a plan to break their school into four small schools that would be designed by the community. They have now created a coalition of teachers, students, parents, churches, and neighborhood organizations supporting their plan.

Our students also played a leading role in a coalition that prevented the privatization of high schools. They organized a thousand-student trip to the state capitol, a major walkout, and a civil disobedience action. A group that is part of the school district could never organize actions like these. They would be considered too controversial.

Schools in this country are in need of a major transformation, not small reforms. This kind of transformation will not come from within school districts themselves. It can only come from communities, led by students and parents, coming together and reclaiming and re-visioning their schools. If we are serious about supporting real student engagement and real change for our schools, we need to invest in and support youth organizing.