As a young person, I know firsthand how our voices are often not asked for, included, or heard.
I'm in my last year of high school and we are working on our capstone projects. Mine, naturally, is about education equity. We are putting together ideas about what would benefit our communities. Young people know way more than adults think we know about current events and community issues.
My peers care about the climate crisis, school to prison pipeline, and gentrification. And they care deeply.
Yet somewhere along our educational journeys, we get lost. Our school system is like a highway. But instead of putting us on a roadway to success, it fails to provide us with the tools we need.
However, if students were taught about the importance of local government in our everyday lives, we would learn we are powerful when we come together.
In order to empower young people to take part in civics, we need to start small and examine the lack of student voice on the school level.
From PTAs to Community Education Councils to School Leadership Teams, under our current systems, parents are given a disproportionate voice compared to how few seats of power students hold. Even when students are in these rooms, their voices are often dismissed and their input disregarded.
I know —and I hope we all can agree— that we must give students more opportunities to be directly involved in decision-making processes, especially in representative bodies of public educational institutions, whose decisions most immediately impact students. We also need to give the students who are involved more credit.
As Ashley said in closing at Democracy Ready NY’s Beyond the Vote event, “youth civic learning is not just a one-time event, but an ongoing process.”
To me, youth civic learning includes incorporating student voice into decision-making means adult leaders co-creating schools with the young people who attend the schools.
Students should have a level of involvement when it comes to hiring school staff, setting schoolwide policies, and determining the curriculum. Our perspectives and experiences are important.
I've been involved in different types of student governments throughout my time in K-12 schools. I have attended 3 schools, a private elementary and a public middle and high school, and at all three, I have worked alongside my peers to try to shape our school experience, but with vastly different results.
When I was in the 4th and 5th grades, each class elected student representatives who sat in on student government meetings with representatives ranging from the 4th to 12th grades, planning dances and spirit weeks. Though this is far from co-governance of schools, as a representative, I felt as if I had some sway and could advocate for my classmates.
In the 7th grade, I informally lead a group of my elected peers in bi-weekly student council meetings in the principal's office. In the 8th grade, after noticing my passion for leadership and my want to make a bigger impact, my principal invited me to join the School Leadership Team (SLT).
I remember wanting to again partake in the decision-making processes at my school and looking at the webpage for my school’s SLT during my ninth-grade year.
I quickly learned that the SLT guidelines by the DOE require an equal amount of parents and teachers, but only require 2 students (and don’t require any students for middle school SLTs).
I still don’t fully understand why students, the ones directly impacted by the decisions meaning made, don’t hold as many seats as parents.
Again during remote learning, I remember attending PTA meetings, registered under my mom's name, again at a loss while watching a body of people talking about the system and school I attend, without the voices of young people. A space where the adults were messengers basing their discussions on what their students told them.
And my school’s PTA, though far from strong and active, had more power to make change than our student government.
Having student voices present everywhere school decisions doesn’t only apply to the DOE Bureaucracy and within schools but also within local government where budgeting decisions are being made. Again, decision-making is not made accessible when City Council Education Committee hearings – like all City Council Committee hearings – are during school hours, making it difficult for students and even more difficult for teachers to attend.
All young people have the right to be heard and to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives. And there is a lot of work to be done on the school and city level to create a space where youth voices are heard.