To make the case for meaningful youth-adult partnership in the U.S. Department of Education, Student Voice hosted the "StartWithStudents: The Next Four Years" public press conference on Monday, February 8. High school students explained why student voice in the U.S. Department of Education would meaningfully improve their schooling experiences.
The conversation was moderated by Claire Gelillo, a Student Voice team member and high school senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland, who shared Student Voice’s five #StartWithStudents recommendations to meaningfully engage young people in the Department of Education that the students were mobilizing around: “Ensure the next Secretary of Education prioritizes student voice, convene regular listening sessions and roundtable discussions with students and stakeholder meetings with student groups across offices at the Department, include students on all commissions, workgroups, and convenings across the department, reinstate staff person(s) within the Department of Education focused intentionally and specifically on youth engagement, and establish a “Learn Back Better” federal advisory committee with student members about the intersections between COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change and the Department of Education’s role.”
Meril Mousoom, a Student Voice Ambassador and high school senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, explained why they became involved with the #StartWithStudents campaign. “I’ve been really active within the #StartWithStudents campaign because I’m frustrated at always being the youngest person in the room in education justice spaces. And that’s why one of our key demands for the Biden-Harris administration is to center student voice, along with racial and social justice, in all the policies and the selection of the leaders and staff of the national education department,” they said. “I want the Department of Education to know what it feels like to be a part of a system that I know can be improved, but have my voice silenced and left unable to change it. I’m sick and tired of my queer Bengali transgender life being confined to one page in a history curriculum. This project gave students like me agency. It gave us courage. It gave us hope. The Department of Education has that same power to make underprivileged students like me feel heard by centering Student Voice in their decision making. Nothing for us without us.”
Ianne Salvosa, a Student Voice Organizing Fellow and high school senior at Liberty High School in Lake St. Louis, Missouri, spoke about her experience with school reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic and why it strengthened her belief in student voice. “In my experience, we cannot rely on our leaders within our schools to keep us safe. Some teachers and even administrators at my school are not willing to wear a mask correctly and that translates to the students. I try my best not to get quarantined at school, I sit alone in most of my classes and I count the tiles on the floor to measure out six feet to ensure I won’t get contact traced. Our school board members do not have a history of standing for all students, as some degraded people of color and have not been held accountable. When they force us to choose between safety and education, and cannot enforce appropriate measures to keep us safe, I cannot say that I have faith in our leaders,” she said. “As the only ones who have truly experienced education during the pandemic, it is only right that we create the opportunity to advocate for ourselves, because it won’t be given to us. In the big picture, COVID-19 has not been taken seriously by Missouri schools and students need to hold adults accountable—we shouldn’t have to choose between safety and education, we deserve to have both.”
On best practices for youth-adult partnership, Pragya Upreti, a Student Voice Ambassador and high school junior at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky, explained, “Meaningful intergenerational partnerships start with a mutual understanding of the fact that learning is an eternal process—that although adults hold expertise, students live the experiences, often through the disparities that are very rarely called out in our public education system. Now, in practice, meaningful youth-adult partnerships entail students working with adults through education research, advocacy, or policy.”
Warning against tokenism, Nyasha Musoni, a Student Voice Journalism Fellow and high school senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School also from Lexington, Kentucky, added, “To me, a meaningful youth-adult partnership starts with the right intention and an open mind. The intent before even starting a conversation or discussion should be to learn, and doing so requires being open to all opinions. What you want to avoid is tokenism…”the practice of making only symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of equality." Essentially, inauthentic action done to appeal to those looking in.”
In addition, students also shared stories about the urgent crises they were facing in school during such an exceptional time for learning.
On the subject of mental health, Mekeala Watkins, a Student Voice Organizing Fellow and high school junior at Redan High School in Stone Mountain, Georgia, said, “As a high school student, I constantly witness first-hand how poor mental health can ruin students. I’ve had to watch so many of my peers (including some of my friends) that I wasn’t able to reach change and mentally disappear. It's imperative that this changes. I want decision makers to understand how important this is to our nation and offer more support in schools. Students deserve to receive proper and stable mental help from school psychologists and counselors.”
Also on mental health, Opal Besaw, a Student Voice Journalism Fellow and high school junior at Glacier High School, shared the issues she saw in her local community of Kalispell, Montana. “The suicide rate amoung Montana teens has been as much as three times the national average. Obviously, these are horrifying statistics that must be remedied,” she said. “In this moment we must equip students with the tools that they need to maintain their mental health. We also must teach them that it is okay to take time for themselves. If we do not do this, some students may never realize their full potential.”
On the need for anti-racist education in schools, Andrew Sung, a Student Voice Learning Lab Member and high school junior at Troy High School in Fullerton, California, said, “The government has a duty to educate young people in a positive way to understand the history of racial injustice and to engage in action that advances equity in our schools and communities. And as students ourselves, we must be a key part of this work, designing solutions to ensure anti-racism is addressed in every school of the country, setting the stage to better work towards meaningful, positive change.”
The full recording of the press conference is available online on Student Voice’s Facebook page. To speak to any of the students involved, obtain a transcript of the press conference, or for any other inquiries about Student Voice’s #StartWithStudents campaign, contact Jenna Yuan, Student Voice’s Director of Communications, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-260-8146.
Our Call to #StartWithStudents: The 2020 elections may be over, but our work is just getting started. Student Voice is organizing at the federal, state and local levels to ensure all decision-makers start with students when making decisions about our educations. Across the country, students are building transformative power to hold leaders accountable to advancing education justice. Working at all levels of government, students are ready to make the Student Bill of Rights and Move School Forward Principles a reality in every school. Learn more about Student Voice’s call to #StartWithStudents at StuVoice.org/start-with-students.
About Student Voice
Student Voice is a by-students, for-students 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works in all 50 states to equip students as storytellers, organizers and institutional partners who advocate for student-driven solutions to educational inequity. Through direct civic action, Student Voice helps students hold their schools and surrounding communities accountable to the Student Bill of Rights and prepares them to become lifelong agents of social and political change. For more information about Student Voice, visit our website at StuVoice.org and follow @Stu_Voice and #StuVoice on social media.