With the quality of Connecticut’s public schools under increasing scrutiny, more than half of the state’s school districts lack any form of student representation in their school boards. Our Education, a new national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. that was founded by two Yale alumni, is working to change that.
The brainchild of Aaron Tang ’05 and Ethan Hutt ’05, Our Education serves as the base for several education reform initiatives, including an eponymous magazine, the Student Voice Project and the National Youth Empowerment Campaign. The group held its first-ever Student Voice Conference earlier this month in an effort to teach high school students how to institute change effectively within their schools.
The conference, sponsored by the Student Voice Project and attended by 35 student leaders from public high schools across Connecticut, encouraged students to take an active interest and involvement in K-12 educational reform. Students participated in a series of workshops designed to develop their leadership skills and familiarize them with systems and statutes ranging from parliamentary procedure to school governance within the state of Connecticut.
Valeria Cotto, a senior at EC Goodwin Technical High School, said her participation in the conference gave her a sense of empowerment and an understanding of how to effect change in her own high school.
“I feel like I can be a leader more now, and I now have a sense of how to show school officials that we care enough to make it better,” Cotto said. “It’s not just adults who have a voice in things, but students care, too.”
The Student Voice Project, Our Education’s only current on-the-ground operation, was started by director Amanda Turner ’07 in 2003. Turner, who served as student representative to her local school board for two years in high school, said she loved the experience and felt that it should be made available to all students who want to effect change within their schools and communities.
“Massachusetts statutes mandate that local districts have student representation,” Turner said, speaking of her home state. “We’re currently working on a legislative campaign in Connecticut that would require the same student participation on local boards here.”
Turner says the Student Voice Project plans to lobby for state legislation that would call for student representation with a preferential vote on all local and regional boards of education in Connecticut.
The initiative and its legislative campaign were an outgrowth of Turner’s independent research on student participation in school policy-making in Massachusetts. Turner, who presented her findings at the conference of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said her experience at the conference taught her that the problem of student representation and advocacy exists at the national level.
“A lot of other states are really interested in this idea of student involvement,” Turner said. “We made contacts in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Wyoming who are eager to host statewide conferences similar to the one we held here in Connecticut.”
Turner said the Student Voice Project is currently collaborating with those New England states that expressed interest in hosting a Student Voice Conference, and plans are underway to hold a conference within each state early next year.
Pan Pan Fan ’08, communications director for the Student Voice Project, said the group lobbied for a similar bill last year and was able to get the support of 14 state senators.
“Last year’s bill made it through all the necessary committees, but I think the reason that it died before a House vote was that there wasn’t enough publicity, even though a lot of people in the state were really excited about it,” Fan said.
This year’s bill will be similar to last year’s in terms of content, Fan said, and Our Education is working to recruit both high school students and Yalies to support their lobbying efforts.
“We’ve been talking to a lot of groups on campus,” Fan said. “At Yale there are always a lot of groups working toward the same goals. We’re looking for students who are passionate about implementing change and ensuring that student interests are represented.”
In the meantime, Our Education is focused on its after-school programs in New Haven, currently in place at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School and Wilbur Cross High School, with plans to expand into Hillhouse High School next semester. The programs, which focus primarily on teaching student activism and encouraging student involvement, are intended as a gateway for students looking to form leadership or advocacy clubs at school.
Tang said both high school students and Yalies have the potential to be a powerful force for educational and social change.
“Most of us at Yale are here because we had educational opportunities growing up and we took advantage of them,” Tang said. “After living in New Haven, you start to realize that literally millions of children in our nation don’t have those same opportunities. Young people need to issue the rallying cry calling for national recommitment to public education.”