This post is contributed by Keith Catone and Alexa LeBoeuf and originally appeared on the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.* Keith and Alexa will be presenting at Inspire 2013.
Youth – the most talked about constituency in our schools – are on the front lines of school reform, which gives them the unique expertise needed to shape reform work in a meaningful way.
Students experience the strengths and weaknesses of our schools on a daily basis. Every day, they work with teachers, engage with the curriculum, and negotiate school facilities. Youth – the most talked about constituency in our schools – are on the front lines of school reform, which gives them the unique expertise needed to shape reform work in a meaningful way. Yet seldom are they consulted when the big decisions are made about their schools – decisions that ultimately impact them the most.
In contrast, the work of community-based youth leadership and organizing groups understands and positions young people as leaders for both setting change agendas and charting the course for achieving educational improvement. The efforts of three New England organizations AISR has worked with – Youth on Board in Massachusetts, Youth In Action in Rhode Island, and Young Organizers United in New Hampshire – offers examples for the practical benefits and promising potential of empowering youth voice in school reform and educational improvement efforts.
In Massachusetts, the student leaders at the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC), a partnership between Youth on Board (YOB) and the Boston Public Schools Office of Family and Student Engagement, organized youth and adults to advocate for and pass regulations that made student feedback a required component of teacher evaluation systems across the state. The campaign’s slogan, “We are the ones in the classroom, ask us!” resonated with parents, administrators, and teachers, as did the youth leaders’ desire to use student-to-teacher constructive feedback as a means to promote teacher development, not to punish struggling teachers. Fundamental to BSAC’s success was building positive relationships with these key constituencies and – perhaps most significantly – forging a positive partnership with the Boston Teachers Union.
In October 2012, YOB hosted a national convening that brought together stakeholders from ten states to generate national momentum around the importance of positive student-teacher relationships and to promote the constructive use of student feedback in the evaluation of teachers. Currently, YOB is building the base of a national coalition that will ensure the continuation of this type of work across the country.
In Rhode Island, young people at Youth In Action (YIA) are starting to apply their organization’s model for adult-supported youth leadership in an effort to improve teacher effectiveness in schools. YIA views and treats youth as co-constructors of the organization’s programs, and values the powerful role that youth can play as agents of change. The organization has built a local reputation for having expertise in youth leadership and youth development that is now being recognized as important for schools and classrooms teachers to understand. Translated into the world of schools, YIA’s view of youth leadership means that young people should not only be providing feedback about classroom teacher practice, but also helping to define what should happen in classrooms and how to support teachers to make it happen in the first place. One of the organization’s new efforts is to help classroom teachers understand the power of youth leadership and voice by conducting youth-led teacher trainings. They have developed a partnership with Roger Williams University’s teacher education program to help its teachers in training understand what it means to build student-centered classrooms by facilitating professional development workshops led by YIA youth leaders.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, Young Organizers United (YOU) works mostly with youth of color, many of whom are from immigrant and refugee backgrounds. Responding to many stories from their youth leaders about disparate treatment in school or lack of access to educational resources and advising, YOU has been working to ensure that all students, regardless of their racial or cultural background, graduate from Manchester high schools prepared for post-secondary success. Over the past year, YOU has advocated for improvements in ELL academic programming at the high school level and worked to design and administer student surveys aimed at understanding student experiences with their guidance counselors. They are currently examining data to determine if student enrollment in lower-level classes is disproportionately skewed toward students of color. All of these focuses stem from listening to the stories of young people who, by virtue of their first-hand experience, are able to identify important challenges facing their schools as a whole.
Like these youth leaders, students across the country have the first-hand knowledge to identify systemic problems, are capable of partnering with adults to assess the validity of their assumptions, and can work on developing reform efforts where they are needed most. When authentically engaged, youth voice adds much-needed perspective on how to best transform the entrenched systems that often drive schools in the wrong direction. Furthermore, as invested stakeholders in their own education, youth leaders are also quite capable of sharing in the tasks and responsibilities associated with education reform work. This means not just being on the receiving end of policy decisions, but helping to make them in the first place; it means not merely receiving instruction from teachers, but helping teachers understand how to do their jobs more effectively; it means listening to youth about the most urgent needs in our schools and trusting that they are invested enough to help shine a guiding light in the right direction for reform.
Youth in Action puts young people at the center of change in their schools and community.
First of three videos posted in “A World Where Youth Hold the Power,” by Adeola A. Oredola, Voices in Urban Education 34 (Summer 2012).
*About the Contributors
Keith Catone is a Principal Associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, where he coordinates the Annenberg Institute’s research, policy, and capacity building support for education organizing and community engagement efforts in the New England region.
Alexa LeBoeuf is a Research Assistant at Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, where she is pursing a Master’s of Public Policy.