An engaged, well-spoken, informed student leader is all it takes to motivate the masses into civic action. Traditionally, our school sees the most student activism when a passionate upperclassman leads the charge. While educators can educate and then ask, influence, or motivate students into participation, it really is those age-alike peers who model civic engagement and then enthusiastically rally students into action for a worthy cause.
In November of 2016, after President Trump was elected, we witnessed a new generation of student advocacy at Century High School in Hillsboro, OR. In a suburban district that celebrates our almost 40 percent Hispanic population, we saw a generation of high school students not yet of voting age reacting with dread as they considered the insecurity of their family’s futures. Filled with fear of ICE agents, those beautiful children wondered if they were safe in our schools or if they or their parents would imminently be deported. They navigated college applications not knowing if that dream would come to fruition or even be possible. First-generation kids with American citizenship joined with their Dreamer peers in our school’s courtyard to shout, “Si se puede!” (Yes you can!). Immediately, posters went up around the school that read, “This is your safe place,” and, “CHS welcomes all races, religions, countries of origin, sexual orientations, genders. We stand with you. You are safe here.”
New student leaders evolved after recognizing that their voices had been too quiet for too long. We saw a resurgence of student involvement in clubs such as the Black Student Union, the Latino Student Union, and our Full Spectrum Club (Gay-Straight Alliance). Not only were our students coming together, but they were participating far more visibly in assemblies and fundraisers, and they were running for elected positions in student government and Key Club. Our school witnessed a transition where student groups became far more representative and reflective of the student body.
Our students became more eager to participate at all levels. While they have always participated in our annual Hillsboro Schools Foundation Phone-a-Thon to raise money for extracurricular programs and grants for classrooms, our students were eager to share their opinions about how education funding affected them on a state and national level. Many students became eager to share their opinions on political issues, too. They held letter-writing campaigns, and we noticed a new fervor as kids conducted annual mock elections in November and hosted voter registration booths.
Creating a Safe Space
After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018, we saw another surge of civic activism in our students as they prepared for two different national walkouts. While the focus of both walkouts was to stop gun violence, the chatter quickly turned to divisive conversations about gun laws, which reflected similar discussions adults were having nationally. As an English teacher and activities director at the time, I quickly realized that kids needed the opportunity to discuss and process their feelings prior to determining whether they would or wouldn’t participate in the walkouts. I held a series of class debates.
After each of the debates, it was my responsibility to:
1. Make sure students had the facts
2. Make sure students could support their opinions with facts
3. Reinforce that students could be friends with and respect someone whose opinion differed from their own
4. Provide a safe place for all of my students to respectfully have and share their beliefs
Whether the belief was congruent with the masses didn’t matter. Whether the belief aligned with the political majority didn’t matter. Regardless of students’ political views, each class eventually came to the conclusion that every student, teacher, and staff member deserves the right to feel safe in their schools. School safety always has been and should continue to be a right.
Led by students, the walkouts also accidentally provided a cross-generational, cohesive community-building experience as stay-at-home parents joined our students from the surrounding neighborhoods with their strollers, as did the residents of the retirement community down the road. Our community members were inspired to see our kids passionately engaged in positive endeavors. From the walkouts, a partnership was formed with our local Moms Demand Action (MDA) group. MDA has chapters in all 50 states and fights for public safety measures that can protect people from gun violence. Together, our students and members of MDA have spoken at forums, marched at the state capital, and appeared on local TV programs.
From the walkouts sprung a student-managed, nonpartisan social media account with the purpose of encouraging kids to continue the momentum that had been built on local, regional, state, and national levels. This Instagram account informs students of events where they can use their voices (e.g., town halls with state senators), provides students with contact information of legislators, encourages them to reach out with opinions, motivates them to audition for local Ted Talks, and informs them about upcoming youth summits. The sole purpose of this account has been to empower our youth to use their voices.
Going Beyond Local
As a 2017–19 member of NASSP’s Student Leadership Advisory Committee, I met with elected officials from our state in Washington, D.C. The overwhelming theme of all the conversations I had with senators, members of Congress, and their staffs was that congressional members want and need to hear from students and teachers on a more regular basis. They want to know more about the student experience in our schools. They all expressed repeatedly that they don’t hear students’ voices enough.
After my trip to Washington, D.C., and my experience at the Capitol, I was motivated to bring elected officials to our school to hear firsthand about student opinions. First, we hosted Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). The gym was filled with retired community members, representatives from MDA, families, educators, and our students. Since 60 percent of our community is made up of retired citizens and/or people without children, it was good for our community to see that students were taking the time to care, connect, and ask questions. A year later, we hosted Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), who will be visiting our school again this spring. Once again, our students attended with enthusiasm.
Student Leaders Guiding Leadership
Outside of the political arena, we also wanted to bolster student voice in the leadership of our district. Through the hard work and dedication of Hillsboro School District’s former board of directors chair Janeen Sollman, the dream became a reality as we inducted the first two student board members in the spring of 2018. Each student has a school-based mentor and an adult board member mentor to support them during their term. While the students were not given voting rights, they were expected to serve in an advisory role, remaining well-informed on district issues and ready with input to speak from the student experience. Our school was thrilled to have Jessica Jose Nickerson (one of our junior student government members) serve in this role last year.
Nickerson was able to attend school board conferences and leadership training opportunities, all while focusing on her platform to eliminate budget reduction days, which would give students more instruction hours per year. Out of this experience came a partnership with an organization called Oregonians for Student Success. Oregonians for Student Success launched a campaign to coordinate and support education advocacy so that every Oregon child receives the best education possible. They visited our school, followed Nickerson, videotaped and interviewed students, and created a five-part series with the purpose of increasing funding and decreasing class size in our schools.
One year after our district added student members to the board, our state board of education did the same thing. Associated student body president and senior Lauren Nguyen was selected to serve this year. She attends monthly meetings at our state capital and is charged with representing students and giving feedback about initiatives. Nguyen’s two main platform points are to make more mental health resources available for students and to implement rules that eliminate discrimination and racism in a school setting.
Exploring Other Programs for Maximum Reach
We also encourage student voice by having kids seek participation at the state and local levels. We have had many students serve on Hillsboro’s Youth Advisory Council (YAC). The YAC develops, organizes, participates in, and manages a number of community events, programs, and service projects throughout the school year. These students represent the Hillsboro community by organizing positive activities, appreciating diversity, and forming more supportive relationships between youth and adults. After YAC’s yearlong campaign to urge officials to limit single-use bags, city officials voted unanimously for the recommendation in November of 2018. The ban went into effect in July of 2019, giving retailers some time to adjust. Our state was quick to follow our community with the ban of single-use plastic bags statewide.
We have also had kids engaged in the Oregon Association of Student Councils (OASC) Capitol Ambassadors Program, a yearlong program that engages high school students in politics and public policy. As part of the program, student leaders are introduced to the state legislature and connected to other students, elected leaders, and public officials from all over the state. Students take many field trips, participate in workshops and webinars, and receive valuable feedback about resume building and cover letter writing. In the past, this group has also had the opportunity to testify before the Oregon House Committee on Education about student perspective in education policy.
Perhaps some of the most exciting and important work students from OASC have done has been their participation in Students for a Healthy Oregon. This group is a coalition of youth that have come together to improve the mental health and well-being of Oregon students. This group took their idea for equitable treatment of mental health and physical health to the 2019 Oregon legislature regular session, which passed a first-of-its-kind legislation in the nation. House Bill 2191 addresses excused absences from school and expands reasons for excused absences to include mental and behavioral health. Students and parents may now call Oregon schools and claim mental health as an excused reason for an absence.
During Teacher Appreciation Week in May of 2019, teachers orchestrated a walkout to communicate their own concern with the rising numbers of students in their classes—deemed unacceptable and unmanageable—and students supported them and participated. The fight communicated support for additional funding; additional counselors and mental health support; additional librarians; additional nurses; additional support for art, music, and PE classes; and more money for supplies. The walkouts forced 20 different school districts to close more than 600 schools, while others relied on substitute teachers. Oregon saw government buildings, streets, and local parks across the state fill with teachers, students, and families. The walkouts sent a strong message to the state and House Bill 3427 (the Student Success Act) passed shortly thereafter and will increase funding for K–12 education by 18 percent.
It is exciting the see this civically engaged spirit continue to permeate through our halls and gather younger students to mimic the activism that the upperclassmen have modeled. I look forward to seeking out more opportunities for student advocacy in the future for our students, as the partnerships made thus far have shown benefits beyond the learning experience they have been through. Our students are networking with influential adults, building their resumes, and blazing the trail for younger student advocates. This really is an inspiring time in education.
Julie Kasper is an assistant principal at Century High School in Hillsboro, OR. A former activities director, Kasper is a two-time Region Seven National Student Council High School Adviser of the Year and served on NASSP’s Student Leadership Advisory Committee from 2017–19.
Only 28% of students report their opinion is represented “a great deal” at the school level, according to a national school survey from NASSP.