AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
Urban Youth: Powerful Reform Partners
The voices most often left out of the debates around education policy belong to the very people who are most affected: the parents, young people, and other residents of low-income, high-minority communities with struggling schools. The young men and women who attend high schools in these communities are often the targets of well-meaning but mistaken assumptions about their needs, or of vicious stereotypes about their behavior, attitudes, and intellectual capacity. These preconceptions can lead to policy decisions that are ineffective – and sometimes even harmful.
The work of the Annenberg Institute has shown that youth organizations around the country are developing leaders, gathering and interpreting data about their schools, presenting solid evidence to policy-makers, designing workable solutions, forming alliances with adult organizations around common interests, attracting resources, gaining meaningful participation in decision making, and applying pressure when necessary. Where this has happened, young leaders have become effective and powerful partners in school reform (King & Balch-Gonzalez 2009).
This view of youth leaders as assets rather than as targets of intervention is amply supported in a recent series of Annenberg Institute reports Organized Communities, Stronger Schools. The reports present findings from a six-year research study of the influence of community and youth organizing to improve public education in seven urban communities. District administrators and city officials in the study sites gave unqualified credit to youth organizing groups for calling attention to serious problems and for coming up with innovative solutions that brought concrete improvements to the school system.
- In South Los Angeles, youth leaders gathered data showing vast disparities in course offerings across Los Angeles. Curriculum in their high schools prepared them for low-wage jobs, not college or successful careers. A youth-led campaign to apply a rigorous curriculum more equitably convinced the Los Angeles school board to mandate a college preparatory curriculum in all Los Angeles high schools. The school board president called the mandate “one of the most significant reforms this district is embarking on in the last twenty years (Shah, Mediratta & McAlister 2009, p. 19).
- In the Bronx, where district administrators addressed safety and violence issues in the high schools by adding metal detectors and police, community and student leaders organized to convince the district that the real cause of the tensions was severe overcrowding. The youth-led campaign resulted in 14,000 seats of additional capacity, which caused a notable improvement in school climate and safety, and district officials invited students to help design a new high school (Mediratta, McAlister & Shah 2009).
In the Annenberg Institute’s support for youth organizing and capacity building, we have seen that intensive training designed specifically for students is an effective way to develop youth leadership.
- Young Voices, in Rhode Island, aims to transform youth into powerful advocates on their own behalf. Young Voices conducts a seven-month leadership academy, where youth learn research, public speaking, and debating skills to prepare them to testify at State House hearings, meet with high-level government officials, sit on boards and commissions, and influence state and local policy.
- In New York City, Annenberg Institute staff conduct an annual Youth Organizing Institute, serving about twenty-five young people every summer from up to ten youth organizations. Young people learn about education policy and history, engage in action research, collaborate on cross-organizational campaigns, receive help on academic needs (research, writing, analysis), and receive scholarship aid toward college tuition.
Youth leaders have proven themselves to be an invaluable asset in pinpointing the actual conditions and problems in schools and proposing solutions that adult policy-makers might not have thought of. The results have been clear and well documented: better policies; safer schools whose culture and conditions are more conducive to learning; and more equitably allocated supports, learning opportunities, and resources.
The benefits of developing and supporting youth leaders in education reform go beyond their considerable successes in improving their communities’ high schools. In learning how to be effective advocates for themselves, their younger siblings, and their communities, these young people are preparing to become the next generation of civic leaders. As then–New York City regional superintendent Yvonne Torres commented about the youth organizing group Sistas and Brothas United in the Northwest Bronx,
SBU prepares young people to articulate their needs and be proactive in defining solutions. I think they have been very instrumental in developing the leadership of students to take action in their community and participate in our democracy. These are the kind of leaders we want for our future . . . children who will stand up and be counted and say what they need to say. (Mediratta, McAlister & Shah 2009, p. 30)
- King, D. K., and M. Balch-Gonzalez. 2009. “Building Leadership Capacity in Smart Education Systems,” Voices in Urban Education 25 (Fall).
- Mediratta, K., S. McAlister, and S. Shah. 2009. Improving Schools through Youth Leadership and Community Action: Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and Sistas and Brothas United. Providence, RI: Brown University, Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
> Summary and case study
- Shah, S., K. Mediratta, and S. McAlister. 2009. Securing a College Prep Curriculum for All Students: Community Coalition – Los Angeles. Providence, RI: Brown University, Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
> Summary and case study
- Annenberg Institute support for youth organizing in New York City
Annenberg Institute staff provide research and other support to the Urban Youth Collaborative, a youth-led coalition that brings together youth organizing groups from across New York City. UYC’s goal is to build a strong youth voice to ensure that their high schools prepare students to go to college, earn a living wage, and work for justice in society.
- Organized Communities, Stronger Schools: The Impact of Community and Youth Organizing On Public School Reform
Findings from a six-year research study by Kavitha Mediratta, Seema Shah, and Sara McAlister include case studies on youth organizing by Sistas and Brothas United, in the Northwest Bronx, and Community Coalition, in Los Angeles.