Listen up Newark: Students tell the district their voices matter

The message in a two-minute video produced by Newark public school students is clear:

Student voices matter.

It's a new campaign from the Youth Media Symposium, a program offered by the Abbott Leadership Institute, at Rutgers University-Newark, that teaches parents and students how to advocate for education.

The youth in the symposium, both public and charter students, don't believe the district hears them when they complain about conditions in the city's schools, such as broken SMART boards, lack of supplies, outdated books and too many substitute teachers.

"Nobody cares about what we have to say, and it's our education they're making decisions about. It's unfair,'' said Rachael Small, 14, an eighth-grader at University High School.

stumbled across their video on Facebook, hours before the Newark Public Schools Board of Education meeting on Tuesday. The students, poised and prepared, attended the meeting to offer a solution.

They want the student representative on the board to have a vote on issues when the district resumes local control from the state this summer. It's important to them, especially following  21 years of oversight.

"There might be some people that believe that students have a voice, but the fact is that we are not being well-represented,'' said Vivian Peralta, a senior and valedictorian at Barringer High School.

A real seat at the table, they believe, would change that. So would creating their own citywide student school board -- comprised of one representative from each school -- to provide their perspective on issues affecting them. An olive branch from the district also would be meaningful, in their opinion.

"How many of you have reached out to the students, the ones directly affected by your policies, rulings and decisions?" asked Quan'ye White, 15, a sophomore at North Star Academy.

Engagement is doable. So is the idea of a student-run board.

Adding a student vote to the regular school board, however, is not up to the district.

Superintendent Christopher Cerf and Board Chairman Marques-Aquil Lewis said that a student vote would require new legislation to reconfigure the nine-member board.

"That is not something that either I or the elected school board can confer,'' Cerf said in a telephone interview. "The composition of the board, the number of board members, the timing of the election is all set by statute."

If that's not possible, the students need something moving forward. See, they also attended the meeting to support Laura Gould, the elected student representative on the board, who believes the position is nothing more than a title.

"In general, I feel like I was kept out of the loop of board conversations,'' Gould said during the meeting.

For much of the year, said Gould, a 17-year-old senior at Science Park High School, she was trying to figure out where she fit in, having been given a role that should have influence. But she soon learned the position held little weight.

"The general attitude toward my role is that it does not matter," she observed.

Gould's predecessor, Ramon Melendez, said he understands her frustration.

"I always came to meetings and my folder would be slimmer than the rest, meaning I was missing information," Melendez said.

Lewis, who in 2009 was the youngest member ever elected to the board, at age 21, apologized to Laura, telling her that he doesn't want the next student representative to have the same disappointing experience. Overall, though, he said the board in past years has done a good job including student representatives.

Cerf said he admires and respects Gould, but he believes the district worked closely with her to make her time on the board meaningful and successful.

The district, he said, is here to serve students and that's why their collective message as Youth Media Symposium participants hit home. He was impressed with what they had to say.

"Having one student to represent 66 schools in Newark is not realistic,''' Rachel Small said of a district that encompasses 36,000 students. "Without power, we will continue to feel like our voices are not important.''

The student board, said 15-year-old KryJuan Roberson, would allow them to hold the Board of Education accountable.

"Return to local control must include a place for us,''  said Roberson, a freshman at Central High School. "We want to make sure you don't ignore us this time around.''

Cerf said he plans to meet with them soon. He can expect to hear about school lunch. It's not good, the students say. Many of them sneak in sandwiches or buy snacks from school fundraisers and concession-type stores inside some of the school buildings.

Finally, he can expect them to speak about emotional support. It'd be nice, they say, if teachers would ask how they're doing sometimes. Instruction is important, but they are, too.

Board members praised the students for speaking up, telling them they are their own best advocate. That is in keeping with the sound guidance from Junius Williams, the founder and director of the Rutgers' Abbott Leadership.

"We give them permission to be as great as they really are,'' Williams said. "We feel  they are able to amplify their voices and control the message."

Lewis said the citywide student board concept is similar to the student government organization the district had when Marion Bolden was superintendent from 1999 to 2008. He said the organization had a student representative from each school to share concerns with the Board of Education.

If it worked then, it can work now.

Student voices do matter.

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