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At youth-led summit, students set strategy for re-engagement at their schools

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

It’s been eight years since the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) last pulled together hundreds of students for a citywide forum to discuss their concerns about what ails Philadelphia public schools. But there was no shortage of interest when students all across the city, wanting to bring needed change to their schools, were invited to share thoughts and strategies on how to make it happen at a Student Summit held on October 30.

About 200 students representing 32 district schools gathered at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on N. Broad Street to talk about the issues most critical to the success of their schools, and also to come up with a platform of their own for education reform in the School District of Philadelphia.

Again organized by the PSU, along with Citywide Student Government, the summit attracted high school students from both neighborhood and magnet high schools, including West Philadelphia, Sayre, William Penn, Parkway Northwest, CAPA, Mastbaum, Bodine, Masterman, and Central. Several students from Chester, Upper Darby, and other high schools located outside of the city also attended the gathering.

Co-sponsors of the event included the high school student group Youth United for Change, which sent about 10 students, as well as Philadelphia Academies, Inc., the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia Education Fund.

For many students feeling a sense of hopelessness due to a negative school climate, the summit offered new perspectives on how to make a difference.

With a new school year, new school superintendent, and new president of the United States, who promises to make education reform a top priority in his administration, the time to make a collective cry for correction to the inequities that persist in Philadelphia public schools may never be better than it is right now.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and her leadership team have plans to bring equity to students and accountability to parents, teachers, and other education professionals. In their own platform for change, students targeted four areas where they feel improvement is needed – school funding, Corrective Action II schools, youth organizing, and teacher quality and equity – and offered solutions.

The just-released platform will be posted on the Student Union website, and PSU members plan to present it at the next School Reform Commission meeting on November 19, as well as use it within their own meetings and campaigns around school policy.

PSU Executive Director Nijmie Dzurinko said this year’s event was meant to break down barriers between schools and neighborhoods by having students from all over the city come together to talk about the issues most pressing to them.

“This almost never happens in the District, not across different schools and not across different communities where people are really communicating with each other, getting to know each other and actually talking about what they are going through every day, so it was a chance for people to bring their own experiences to the table,” Dzurinko said.

After a spirited opening emceed by PSU members Khalif Dobson, a junior at West Philadelphia and Angelique Void, a senior at Sayre High School, students shared experiences in various workshops covering such topics as teacher equity, youth voice and leadership, reclaiming your education, and the plight of Corrective Action II schools.

In a breakout session tagged “School Funding,” students learned about school budgets and why certain schools receive more money than others. Highly interactive, this workshop divided participants into three groups, each group representing the administration of a fictitious school with a different level of resources.

Of course, few would dispute that more money is key to bringing parity in District schools. Jalisa Dickerson, a junior at Parkway Northwest, sat at a table with a fellow classmate and a student she met from Masterman, talking about the lack of lockers and a cafeteria at her school.

But students at the summit recognized that more resources are only part of the solution. Many said revamping a core curriculum that is rigid and driven by a need to boost standardized test scores rather than student interest is also critical, particularly to combating the city’s dropout rate, which now stands at 45 percent.

Creating a learning environment that encourages and supports its student body is also paramount for these students, but difficult to achieve when many have to walk through the hallways with cameras hanging overhead and bars on the windows.

In an interview, Dobson recalled how his high school experience at West Philadelphia did not start out as he had expected.

When Dobson entered ninth grade at West, he was mentally prepared to take on the daily and repressive ritual of having to show his student ID and walk through a metal detector. He remembered being unfazed by reports that West harbored unruly students slow to learn and quick to make trouble. After all, he knew his academic capabilities and was sure of his desire to excel.

“The hype was that West is a bad place, but when I got there it was like, ‘Wow!’ – a bad place is an understatement. We were known as ‘the fire-starters.’ There was all this drama about our principal being changed constantly – so there were a lot of frustrations,” Dobson said.

“All I can say is, ‘Thank God for Student Union!’ because I had the opportunity of the Student Union coming and talking to the students and asking us, ‘Why is it that your classroom is this way? Why are you so pre-judged? Why do you have so many security guards in your school and not enough counselors?’ They asked these questions and waited for me to answer. I was like, ‘Wow – someone actually cares what I have to say.’ Ever since then, I’ve been in the Student Union,” he said.

Sayre senior and Student Union member Matthew Johnson described his school similarly as “sad and depressing. When the freshmen come in they are happy and stuff, but I realize that once they start moving up the soul gets sucked out of them.”

Dobson encourages every student to remedy their disengagement with ailing schools by not just speaking out, but also working together across all neighborhoods and schools to promote positive change.

Dzurinko said student organizing in those settings has had an impact – both on citywide policy and “with individual teachers in terms of students really being clear with their teachers about needing interactive activities and needing to be engaged. Some teachers really respond to that because they start to get positive feedback from their students.”

Although Dan Jones, a PSU member and junior at highly selective Masterman High School, isn’t faced with the same school surroundings as many of those who attended the summit, he too recognizes the need to create schools that are enriching for all students.

“Learning is something that comes natural to people. It’s a hunger that people have, and if schools are making it a struggle to do that, then something is wrong,” Jones said.

“So what we’re hoping to do with our youth-created platform for education reform in Philadelphia is to get a mass of 200 students who are willing to fight for it and who are willing to recruit other people to fight for it as well.”

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