Student Voice Research Meeting

Today I travelled to New York City at the request of Robert Sherman from Surdna Foundation. He asked that I participate in a meeting called by Francine Joselowsky of the Academy for Educational Development to discuss “youth engagement in education reform.” It is always interesting for me to get involved in national scene activities, particularly when they are in an area that wasn’t existant before my forays, such as this topic.

I came to the table with my close friend Jenny Sazama of Youth On Board. Jenny and I have been working together for sometime on a variety of projects; most recently the Boston Student Voice Project. She’s awesome, and I love working with her in so many ways.

Francine I had first met in 2002, when I asked Joel Tolman, then of the Forum for Youth Investment, to meet me at the Children’s Defense Fund annual conference that I was invited to speak at in D.C. Joel brought Francine along and introduced her as his replacement at FFYI. I was excited for this access, and excitedly shared my then-new materials on meaningful student involvement with them both. While Joel seemed receptive, I was initially taken aback by Francine’s apparent indifference. However, those tides have turned now, and since Francine’s tenure at FFYI that organization has published numerous materials on youth engagement in schools, and Francine has devised a number of tools relevant to the cause. Perhaps more importantly, through Youth On Board Francine and I began talking about working together to create some case studies focused on engaging students in school improvement.

I first formally met Robert Sherman in 2004 when he hosted a panel I spoke on at the invitation of HumanLinks Foundation. In what I saw as an awkward arrangement, I was positioned in a dicotomous relationship with my co-speakers at that conference, who were from Sistas & Bruthas United in the Bronx, and the Philadelphia Students Union. In my research for the meaningful student involvement series I read a great deal of information about both orgs, and was in awe of sharing a table with them. However, our conversations weren’t parallel: where they were talking about community organizing for school improvement, I was talking about students working with educators to change the system. Robert sensed that tension, and played on it for this audience of funders.

So here I am in NYC, again in a strange dicotomous relationship with fellow speakers, although this time more righteously so. Instead of being at the same table, many of the people in the room were in different camps, coming to the discussion with different understandings of what youth engagement in education reform was. Several folks, particularly those from the skills-oriented (traditional) youth development camp, argued for the entwinement of youth development into school reform models, thereby strengthening their work. With a lack of clear guidance around the topic, they were allowed to run roughshod over the conversation for almost the entire time.

At about the 3/4 mark Robert commented that perhaps the discussion didn’t need to go further, because there wasn’t common consensus. That’s when I chimed in. The dilemma to the conversation so far, I said, wasn’t disjointedness so much as it was a lack of focus. Without a firm understanding of the goal at hand, folks weren’t able to speak to the needs we were supposed to be identifying. I proposed then that the gathering adopt the hypothesis of my school-focused work, which is that when adults engage students as partners in school improvement, schools are going to be more effective, academically, socially, and broadly.

The conversation took a different tone from then out, more from Francine’s re-affirmation of purpose rather than my statement. However, I believe it was an important first step to raising the profile of meaningful student involvemement on the national radar. Stay tuned.

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