City Schools: How Districts and Communities Can Create Smart Education Systems (Harvard Education Press, 2007) lays out a vision for a “smart” education system, one that links a highly functioning and effective school district with a comprehensive and accessible web of supports for children, youth, and families. In this excerpt, Kavitha Mediratta, Amy Cohen, and Seema Shah describe the role of youth organizing in creating and maintaining such a system.
Across the country, high school students are increasingly engaged in planning and carrying out sophisticated campaigns to improve schooling outcomes in their communities. In 2005, for example, Los Angeles high school students were part of a coalition of parents, other advocates, and policy researchers that forced the school district to make a college-preparatory curriculum mandatory for all the district’s high school students. That same year, Philadelphia high school students led a campaign for a radical reform of high school education and partnered in the redesign of several large high school campuses into small schools.
Community-based youth organizing seeks to build power among low-income urban youth of color to challenge the institutionalized norms and relationships that create and maintain poorly performing schools in their neighborhoods. The following quotes from high school students suggest the reality many urban youth of color encounter in their schools:
“I went through life in high school just like the youth in my neighborhood, planning to fail.”
“I am a student who is being criminalized in school.”
“I slowly became less interested in school.”
“I see a cycle repeating itself.”
A Latino high school student recounts his experience advocating for college-preparatory curricula for himself and his peers:
There was a bill that we were trying to pass where they’d make legislation so the [college-prep courses] are given to you [as] the [mandated] curriculum. And we went to talk to legislators about it. Some were supportive. Some were like, “No, it’s too hard for students to go through. They’re not going to be able to graduate if we give them these classes. They’re not smart enough.” And one lady, I remember her saying, “If everyone’s going to college, who’s going to fix my car?”
Youth organizing groups, which are often staffed by adults, work independently of schools, though some groups develop relationships with schools through service or youth development activities. Many youth organizing groups provide homework tutoring, link students to supportive services, and support students through the college application process. But youth organizing also aspires to a larger goal: It seeks to develop young people’s capacity to act collectively to confront injustice and transform the institutions that shape their lives (see sidebar "Youth Leadership and Voice: Three Paradigms").
Because youth organizing for education reform is so new and expanding so rapidly, it is difficult to assess the actual number of existing groups. But research conducted in 2002 identified at least 40 such groups in the San Francisco Bay Area and suggested that many more are active throughout the country.
An Expanding Field
Several key trends within the arena of public education supported the expansion of youth organizing over the past two decades. In the late 1980s, following a rise in juvenile crime, school districts across the country began developing “zero-tolerance” policies to reduce the threat of youth violence. The resulting increase in school expulsion rates sparked a wave of youth protests in urban districts against school practices that pushed them out of school.
Generation Y, a youth organization in Chicago, for example, surveyed 350 students from different high schools about their school’s zero-tolerance policies and collected data on student suspension rates. Its 2000 report, Suspended Education
, documented a rise in the number of student suspensions for minor offenses, such as tardiness and skipping classes, and it advocated for alternative discipline policies that keep young people in school. Around the same time, young people in California and Mississippi were also developing campaigns to challenge not only the racially charged application of zero-tolerance policies in urban districts, but also the stark disparity between rapidly rising expenditures for prisons and stagnant or declining funds for schools.
With the rise of the accountability movement, youth groups like Sistas In Action for Power in Portland, Oregon, which develops organizing and leadership skills among young women of color, began organizing to challenge the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act in local schools. The introduction of small high school reform in urban districts also became a catalyst for youth-driven oppositional activity to influence reforms in their communities. For example, in New York City in 2003, Sistas and Brothas United seized the opportunity afforded by small high school reforms to design and open their own small school based on a youth organizing model of student leadership for social justice. The group also joined with other allies to build a citywide power base of high school students through the Urban Youth Collaborative, to inject youth influence into what they saw as a top-down, insular high school reform process.
In Philadelphia, following seven years of school-based organizing to win incremental changes, such as improved curricula, adequate textbooks, and facility improvements, two youth organizations came together in 2005 to articulate a sweeping educational agenda. Working as allies, Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union fought for a transformation of the high schools in their neighborhoods and participated in selecting the theme-based small schools that were created on these campuses.
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, South Central Youth Empowered thru Action (SCYEA) led a successful campaign to gain equal access to college-preparatory classes. The group, which had started a decade earlier to improve the physical conditions of Los Angeles high schools, gathered data on the low rates of college attendance by inner-city high school graduates and launched protests, work with media, and coalition-building to gather support for a policy of greater access to college-preparatory classes. In 2005, the school board adopted a policy that mandates the college-preparatory curriculum as the default curriculum for all Los Angeles high school students.
The Impact of Youth Organizing on Schools and Students
What is the impact of youth organizing on school and district capacity? Researchers at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University are in the fifth year of a six-year study to examine that question. Funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, our study sample includes three established youth organizing groups: Sistas and Brothas United of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition in the Bronx, New York; South Central Youth Empowered thru Action of the Community Coalition in Los Angeles; and Youth United for Change in Philadelphia.
Early findings from our research suggest that youth organizing groups have indeed influenced the decisionmaking of school and district administrators and have achieved major policy victories. At the same time, these groups have exposed the stratification of educational outcomes and raised demands for college pathways that include curriculum, expanded college counseling supports, and a range of early academic and social/emotional interventions.
In each study site, school and district interviewees attribute a range of policy decisions and school-level innovations to the work of youth-organizing groups. As one district official notes, the impact of youth organizing on schools is significant:
They have been largely responsible for the shape that those [two high] schools are taking—the evolutions in those schools are in large part the result of their effort. We’ve really listened to them, and we’ve involved them in the process, and we’ve sometimes deferred to them. They’ve been very influential in the redesign of those two schools.
Our research suggests that participation in youth organizing for education reform also impacts the lives of young people in significant ways (see sidebar "How Organizing Transformed One School and One Student"). A survey of 124 youths involved in the core groups of our three high school youth organizing sites indicates that, as a result of their involvement, participants felt more engaged in their educational experience, believed they were more likely to persist in school, and were more focused on longer-term goals for college and work. Our data suggest that organizing positively affects the capacity and, potentially, the futures of the young people involved in organizing.
In a smart education system, young people’s despair over their educational experiences and their demands for improvement in the quality of education in their schools would be acknowledged as calls to action and transformation. Educators’ efforts to involve students must move beyond the traditional, adult-controlled forms of student leadership and youth voice to build relationships with students based on participative forms of governance and accountability. Building such relationships requires a dramatic shift in how educators think about and engage young people in schools.
Kavitha Mediratta is a principal associate at the Community Involvement Program (CIP) at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Amy Cohen is a collaborative coordinator at CIP. Seema Shah is a research associate and study director at CIP.