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Student activists blossom in changing school climate
Tigard High School junior Abdirahim Mohamoud (center) and Tualatin High School senior Matt Brown helped present carefully researched data on student activity fees at a January Tigard-Tualatin School Board meeting. Rep. Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard, (left) said the students were impressive and persuasive. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
A half-dozen Tigard and Tualatin high school students faced a long table of school board members, administrators and a state representative at a recent board meeting.
These student activists are among the vocal young people taking their messages to the school board, the city council, the Capitol and protests in the streets. Educators say changes in teaching and society are fostering student engagement and self-agency, encouraging activism.
The Tigard-Tualatin Student Union representatives presented charts, graphs and survey results laying out the case for eliminating activity and sports fees.
A high school administrator said that in his experience he didn’t think getting rid of pay to play would change the number of students in sports.
Respectfully, said Tualatin High School senior Matt Brown, the students’ data clearly show cost is a barrier to student participation.
“It was all I could do to not jump out of my chair,” said Tigard-Tualatin School Board member Ben Bowman. “That’s a perfect example of a student feeling empowered.”
Tigard and Tualatin high school students who had worked on Bowman’s school board campaign created the Student Union to press issues important to them. They say they are the ones who understand best how education decisions affect students.
“It’s important that our leaders listen to us because we are the ones who have to live with the decisions they make for generations to come,” said Tigard High School senior Sophie Brands, a member of the Student Union.
Brown said they undertook surveys and research on pay-to-play fees precisely so discussions would be based on facts and not people’s assumptions about students.
Today’s students have access to the world’s knowledge and instant communication platforms to share ideas. Increasingly, schools are teaching young people how to question, how to sift and sort information to reach conclusions, and how to turn learning into action.
At the same time, educators’ emphasis on personal relationships with students and empathy for student views validates young people’s input. Oregon’s Student Success Act, for example, will hang roughly $500 million a year in grants partially on community engagement efforts that asked students, especially historically underrepresented student groups, what their schools need.
The Tigard-Tualatin School Board is continuing to work with the students and the data they collected as the district considers what to do with pay-to-play fees. Bowman said it’s hard to ignore students when they combine data with moving personal experiences.
“A lot of the challenges in our society are felt most acutely by students,” he said.
Students have walked out of classes around the state to promote gun safety and climate action, often with school permission. Issues such as LGBTQ rights, racism and mental health efforts play out in school hallways and spill into government meetings.
State Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said that student testimony in legislative hearings is often the most “edge-of-their-seats” compelling.
Last year, Wagner sponsored a bill brought forth by 14-year-old Claire Sarnowski of Lake Oswego that will require Oregon public school students to learn about the Holocaust and other genocides.
As the Lake Oswego School Board chair, Wagner regularly sees students powerfully addressing society’s most pressing issues.
“They are not only engaged, they are often leading the way,” he said. “We need to be supporting that.”
Coquille Superintendent Tim Sweeney said schools need to engage students who want to be part of the conversation.
He said he strives to put students in front of the school board because they are the ones going through the issues. He said it is more challenging to teach students who are actively questioning, but students who aren’t engaged will just tune out or go elsewhere.
Student councils, leadership classes, school clubs and school board student seats offer avenues for student activists where adults can help nurture their passions. Students of all ages are stepping up.
Chehalem Valley Middle School eighth grader Bridget Czarnecki, inspired by 17-year-old international activist Greta Thunberg, has taken climate change resolutions to the Newberg City Council and the Newberg School Board.
She said trying to change the whole world seems daunting but she can make a difference if she focuses on her community. She said she needed to do something rather than just worrying about the environment.
“It’s not just hopeless, and it’s not just all up to the adults,” Czarnecki said.
Chehalem Valley Middle School Acting Principal Casey Petrie said the school’s changing teacher mindset empowers students to ask questions, seek out answers and take action. Teachers are encouraged to look at things from students’ perspective, and students are asked their opinions on their education.
“We’re creating this environment where they feel like they have a voice and their voice matters,” she said.
Some students coming into the middle school are still used to education being a one-way conduit of information from teacher to student, she said. Giving students the power to question and shape their own learning makes some of them uncomfortable but student agency is becoming intertwined with how content is taught, she said.
Petrie said these young student activists are not rebels or bucking authority. Instead, she said, they are phenomenal students who are inspiring their peers.
Problems in schools often spring out of students feeling powerless, said Newberg School Board Chair Brandy Penner, who also serves on the OSBA Board of Directors. Encouraging students to research, go to meetings and offer suggestions gives them a measure of control even if the issue they are addressing doesn’t move much, she said.
She said she loves it when students come before the board because it is important for students to feel heard.
“Every time you have a student come before you, it gives you hope for the future,” Penner said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA