This case study is a clear and illustrative example of how the leadership, knowledge, and determination of students have improved the educational policies, practices, and experiences of students at ESUHSD, and created new paths and possibilities for what education can look like.
Just as importantly, this case study found that unlike predominant schooling cultures and structures, honoring the right of youth to participate meaningfully and nurturing the practice of democracy in schools and school districts has also brought a profound change in students themselves, reigniting a passion for learning, civic engagement, and a deeper sense of agency. These, we believe, are all critical within the current context of profound injustices which are being gravely exacerbated by what Gloria Ladson-Billings calls the convergence of four pandemics: COVID-19, racism, the threat of economic collapse and impending environmental catastrophe (NC State University College of Education, 2021).
Those interested in promoting the role of youth voice, power, and participation in the pursuit of educational justice must recognize that current models of schooling exist in deep contradiction to the principles and values that guided the work and story captured in this case study. Most students that we interviewed, while empowered, inspired, and motivated by their experiences as leaders and organizers, had to return to classrooms where their questions, identities, potential contributions, and lived experiences were constantly disregarded in exchange for the “educational program.” For the work that we have documented in this case study to occur, organizers, youth leaders, coalitions, and other allies spent countless hours challenging and pushing a system whose structure and culture does not center the possibilities that can be gifted to our world and our systems by students. Rather, that systems promote the overarching logics of standards, tests, uniformity, assimilation, coercion, and the transferring of knowledge from those that know to those who do not. Just as importantly, this work will require a profound change in adult beliefs and assumptions about youth and their role in reshaping education, especially historically persistent and prevalent ideologies that disproportionately impact Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other marginalized youth.
Lastly, we are not alone in this work and for it to be successful we need to engage in this work together. Consequently, we must center this work in relationality, learn from those that have struggled before us, and continue to root our work in a belief in the possibilities that lie ahead of us.
“Many understood it (youth voice, power, and participation) was the right thing to do, but they often said ‘this is not going to work’ or ‘let’s not go there’. Now, they’ve recognized that student voice is not only ‘not that scary’, but it is actually transformative for students and adults.”Rosa de Leon, CFJ Strategy Director