The Road Ahead: New Challenges

Consistent with social theories, which suggest that action to transform the nature of relationships, and to empower those most marginalized by school systems will inherently re-inform social analyses and bring forth new possibilities, identities, and futurities (Horton et al., 1990), the work of developing youth voice has begun to change youth, adults, and the possibilities for educational change within ESUHSD. 

This work, consistent with a broader vision of schooling, calls for schools to be places where democracy is practiced; places where citizens and students critically examine and collaboratively solve their shared problems, especially among those student and citizen populations who suffer most from the structural inequalities and everyday injustices related to education. Moreover, given San Jose’s rapid change and growing levels of economic and social inequities, this call is especially important within ESUHSD.

If something was clear within ESUHSD, it is that students are up for the challenge and that the beginning steps have been taken. However, a commitment to this vision of schooling also means that there is much work to be done in moving towards schools and school systems as places where democracy is practiced. This vision also requires that school systems be willing to face long standing and deep-seated structures, practices, and cultures.

CHALLENGE: System Coherency

As schools empower students and they begin to participate more fully, the contradictions and inconsistencies across the system become more apparent. As a student shared during a council meeting,

“We come to the district or to our school’s leadership meetings and they tell us that our voices matter, then we go back to the classroom and our voices do not matter at all.” 

Student Governing Board member

Principal Chiala, one of the original advocates for youth leadership at his school and in the district, echoed the same idea when talking about student dissent and how it is interpreted in classrooms:

“At a board meeting, you can tell students their voices matter, but often they go back to the classroom, and they’re told to shut up and sit down.”

Vito Chiala, Principal, William C. Overfelt High School

Educational stakeholders and educators often focus on “what” to teach, the programs we implement, the “things” that we bring, prioritizing these over the “how”. Consequently, as students pointed out, we fail to “practice what we preach.” We often forget that the building blocks, the fundamental DNA of a school’s character, are in its daily interactions, in the way things are implemented, in how content is taught, how relationships are built, and in this case, how these values and commitment to youth voice, power and participation are practiced across different spaces, not preached or taught. While this raises important and consequential challenges to those seeking to build up youth voice, power, and participation, it is also an opportunity to bring about change across the system.

“When you look at the goal of bringing in student voice, culture has to shift. District wide, we’re bringing it in. But, is it translating into the classroom? Do [students] have their voice there? I don’t think we’re there yet. I think we’ve done a good job. We have a student who now sits on the Governing Board. We do have the Student Governing Committee and we have our district demographics represented in the LCAP student Advisory Committee. We’re asking the kids, ‘What do you want to see district-wide’? But the work to be done needs to hit the classroom with teachers and in other spaces. Teachers and adults across the board valuing student voice and students having a say in how they demonstrate their mastery? I think that’s the key piece that’s missing for us.”

Teresa Marquez, ESUHSD Associate Superintendent of Educational Services

CHALLENGE: Valuing Student Voice and Addressing Inequities in Participation 

Creating schools where students can participate also requires deep changes to culture, beliefs, and power dynamics.  Moving towards a schoolwide system of youth voice, power, and participation hinges on recognition of the interdependency between culture and structure. For structures to be effective, a comprehensive culture shift from antagonism to allyship is necessary.

“In some spaces, we are encouraged to disagree because there is a lot that is wrong, but then in other spaces we are punished if we disagree.”

Student Governing Board member

These tensions are complex and tied to the long and convoluted history of schools. To be effective, change must come from a collective effort to interrogate who, when, and how power is distributed in the classroom. As allies, students and teachers can work in dialogue to further learning. Stigmatization or negative labeling, however, impedes this process.

“The three underpinnings of a program I worked in before, one that informs my current work with the district, are: one, there are no bad kids. That’s the first, foremost underpinning. Two, youth do as we do, not as we say to do. And three, youth take action based on the future they see for themselves. So, if we’re going to bring those underpinnings into our classrooms, it’s all contingent on adults being willing to do the hard work of recognizing, ‘When am I labeling a kid as a bad kid?’”

Pattie Cortese, ESUHSD Board of Trustees President

Pattie’s perspective reflects the cornerstone of critical pedagogy: dialogical learning cannot occur between two antagonists (Freire, 1970). Lupe points out that though “involvement is difficult, and we have controversial topics,” student-staff dialogue has led to an increased consciousness of school-wide shortcomings. Teresa Marquez gives an example of how listening to students informed an initiative to reduce racial bias. 

“One of the most impactful questions that they posed to students was whether they believe a teacher’s expectations change based on a student’s race or ethnicity. I saw the number of kids that responded, “Yes, it does. They have lower expectations of me.” How do we use that information to inform teachers? What growth do we have to do? It was instrumental in putting forth the implicit bias training that we did across the district and continue to do.”

Teresa Marquez, ESUHSD Associate Superintendent of Educational Services

This captures what we found to be another important challenge and opportunity: the need to address assumptions and biases about young people, especially Black, Brown, and Indigenous students. As we do this work, we respond to Winn’s call to “excavate the stubborn walls of generalizations and stereotypes” (Winn, 2011) that have long contributed to the silencing, dismissal, and criminalization of marginalized students. 

“We mustn’t only elevate student voice; we have to value it.”

Ana, Student Leader

Students consistently resonated with this idea, sharing that they found lots of resistance to having certain conversations, even though they were relevant to their experiences as students. 

CHALLENGE: Reluctance to enact transformative change

Lastly, a major challenge and opportunity lies in the reluctance of large school systems to enact transformative change. As students were exposed to the inequities and challenges within their schools, they became more empowered to take these challenges on, but were often met with the reluctance of adults to engage with and confront these issues, and a system with limited capacity, short policy lifecycles, high attrition rates, and little infrastructure to sustain and cultivate their efforts.

Consistent with research that shows that bringing forth spaces for critical civic agency breeds resistance and the tendency to avoid “political” topics that upset relations of power (Kirshner, 2015), youth and stakeholders at ESUHSD expressed the challenge of having to address difficult topics like race, power, and privilege. 

“Teachers have been getting implicit bias training and some teachers are like, ‘Oh, this is stupid. Why are we doing this?’ I’ve had teachers who went on a whole 30-minute rant about these trainings. And I, as a student, who have encouraged the district to implement these trainings, am sitting there like, “Wow. This is why you need these trainings.”

Student Leader

However, it is through these difficult conversations where we can begin to address some of the biggest problems facing our schools and our broader society. However, these conversations need initiation and there is a tendency to avoid these discussions and to dismiss the voices of those often excluded from “leadership” spaces in school settings. CFJ’s organizing motto, “nothing about us without us”, raises this as a broader challenge: to ensure the voices and experiences of those most impacted by educational injustices are centered, valued, and taken into account in decision-making and practice.

“We want students to feel there’s spaces where they can share, but sometimes these spaces have the same students. The student leadership is supposed to be the representative body of the school, but it continues to be made up mostly of especially high achievers, students of higher socio-economic status than average for our district and is widely under-representative of our Latinx students in a school that is mostly Latinx.” 

Teresa Marquez, ESUHSD Associate Superintendent of Educational Services

Students reflected that even though their time spent at board meetings and in leadership positions had encouraged them to more critically engage with the school environment, it had also been debilitating and difficult at times. 

“When student reps first went to LCAP meetings, we were ‘blindsided,’ as we had no idea what the subject would be. If someone would have told us earlier what [the meeting] was about, we would’ve been a little bit more on track.” 

Gaby, Student Leader

“Sometimes we are asked, ‘can you nominate students to be in this space?’ But there is a huge burden placed on students to be able to effectively use the opportunity to make change, because there’ll be a group of 30 adults and two students who don’t have any of the tools, background information, or training that any of these adults do, like how to create or execute policy. Which raises an important question: Are students there to be tokens? Just for the show? We feel [like] this sometimes.” 

Nhada Ahmed, CFJ Organizer

If and when students that have been absent from these conversations are taken seriously, it often leads to difficult conversations about disparities and injustices that school systems have long normalized.  

“Once students are empowered, they want to find what things really mean and then engage. Take disproportionality across educational opportunities, experiences and outcomes. Creating better schools requires confronting biases and inequities, and this requires multiple hard and honest conversations. That is where the hard work begins.”

Teresa Marquez, ESUHSD Associate Superintendent of Educational Services

Recognizing the challenges of sustaining and nurturing this work, most stakeholders expressed the importance of disseminating the knowledge and lessons it has generataed to stakeholders at different levels. Many students, sharing ‘I wish I knew then what I know now’, emphasized the importance of knowledge transfer and of continuing to build upon previous work.

“We need to help students become more aware of what they’re getting themselves into, and also spread awareness [of the program] around school. Not just giving students that are going to be here next year information about the program, but reaching out to them to see what they actually need help with.”

Alexis, Student Leader

In Pattie Cortese’s words, students feel “empowered and inspired,” but “it’s all so new.” Much of the work that ESUHSD has done is tenuous; it’s “a gentle seedling, at risk of dying.”