Adults are used to being experts. Too often, they’re certain they know what young people need. Though often well-meaning, these adults don’t stop to ask young people if a new building or block scheduling or new technology or exit exams will help motivate them to achieve.
But we adults should ask and we should listen. We can learn a lot listening to young people, not just about what they want and need, but about what’s working and what’s not in our schools and communities. As Amanda Ripley recently wrote: “Students are the most valuable and least consulted education-policy experts in America.”
At America’s Promise, we’ve been working hard to listen to young people. In the past few years, we have released major research studies on high school graduation that are based entirely on the voice and input of young people. Don’t Call Them Dropouts and Don’t Quit on Me injected the experiences and voice of young people into the conversation.
I’m happy to report that I see more signs that young people are eager to have a say in decisions that affect their lives, and that adults are beginning to listen.
Here are just a few examples I’ve come across recently.
Minnesota: Youth Council Advises Lawmakers at the Capitol
In the Twin Cities, 175 members of the Minnesota Youth Council recently gathered at the state capitol in St. Paul for Youth Day at the Capitol. Here’s the cool turnaround: on Youth Day, state legislators seek the advice and approval of young people, not the other way around.
Legislators presented their bills to the Youth Council, and several bills won enthusiastic support. But the Youth Council rejected a proposal for a new civics test that could become a new graduation requirement. Here are some of the tough questions they asked about the civics test bill on the table:
- “How will adding this requirement help Minnesota improve its poor graduation rate?”
- “Would it make more sense to restructure civics education instead of adding a new test as a graduation requirement?”
- “Does this test really measure civic engagement?”
In the wake of Youth Day, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published an op-ed by 18-year-old Rogelio Salinas, who participated in Youth Day at the Capitol. Rogelio wrote about an “expulsion bill” lawmakers considered, and a bill promoting restorative justice policies that he urged them to vote for instead.
Florida: Alliance for Public Schools’ GradNation Summit
At a recent GradNation Community Summit, nearly 200 high school students from Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties led local leaders to talk about how to raise high school graduation rates in their schools.
As Hillsborough School Superintendent Jeff Eakins said, "The students can see things we don't see sometimes in some of those schools…things we should've been asking all along."
Like the value of having a peer as a mentor. Alexia Woodard, a high school junior who helped create a mentoring program that pairs off-track underclassmen with on-track upperclassmen, told the Tampa Bay Times about the importance of having peer-to-peer support.
"I really like having someone at the same level as me, so if I know that the peers at my school aren't graduating, it would hurt me," she said. "If you don't have student opportunity, the school isn't going to function right."
Rhode Island: Young Voices Consulting Student Research
Here’s a radical idea: what if you collected data about students from students? That’s exactly what the nonprofit Young Voices does in Rhode Island.
The group, which gives low-income youth the tools to have a voice, recently helped young people survey their peers about what policy makers could do to raise graduation rates. The answer was clear: replace punitive discipline policies with restorative justice practices.
Students are now working closely with district staff to design a new discipline policy and meeting with the new Providence superintendent to advocate for implementation across the district. They’re also presenting their data at a major statewide conference and offering trainings in restorative justice to Providence school staff.
Read more about the change their enacting at the school, district, and state levels on their website.
This is just a snapshot of the kinds of youth advocacy I’ve seen taking off around the country. I hope adults are paying attention. When it comes to the issues that most affect young people, let’s not forget who the real experts are.
America’s Promise Alliance is seeking two young people between the ages of 16-22 to serve a two-year term on our Board of Directors and with our Alliance Trustees. Each will attend annual meetings in Washington, act as a full voting member of the leadership body, and play a valuable role in shaping our strategic direction. Those selected will serve through Spring 2018. Encourage young people you know to apply! The deadline is June 3.
John Gomperts is the CEO and president of America’s Promise Alliance.