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Youth Rising!

In the fight for great public schools, sometimes it’s students who create lasting change.

Some students’ legacies are on display in the school trophy case or in the pages of the yearbook. Others leave a legacy that might not earn them a medal, but improves the school community. These are the students who take up a cause, organize sit-ins and walk-outs, social media campaigns, and good old-fashioned rallies to stand up to elected leaders, corporate reformers, the overuse of standardized tests, and substandard facilities. Here are a few of their stories.

Sydney Chinowsky
Pushed state legislators to rethink testing

As a senior at Colorado’s Fairview High School in 2014, Sydney Chinowsky was relieved that she and her classmates weren’t facing any more state standardized tests. They could focus on college admissions and IB exams. 

But then, “...It was like, nope, we are going to give you this unnecessary test,” says Chinowsky, recalling the sudden announcement that November that seniors would take the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) after all.

Inspired by recent student protests in nearby Jefferson County over the school board’s censorship of the curriculum, the Fairview seniors realized they, too, could take a public stand over what they saw as “the degradation of our education.”

Over the two days in December that the test was to be administered, more than 350 seniors bundled up and protested outside of the school in sub-freezing temperatures and two feet of snow. Fewer than 10 students took the exam. 

Although teachers were contractually required to administer the tests, they also tromped outdoors to check on the students and bring donuts and coffee.

These were not lazy seniors looking to cut class—they set up computers so that everyone present could email their lawmakers about the problems with excessive testing. They also hosted drives that filled two vans with food and school supplies for local agencies.

Last March, during her spring break, Chinowsky spoke at the More Than a Score rally outside of the state capitol. 

She was introduced by Colorado Education Association President Kari Dahlman, who said, “I am convinced that all of the testing bills they’re discussing behind me in this building were influenced by the actions of these remarkable students from Boulder.”

The students’ efforts worked. The state ditched the CMAS test for the current school year, and testing has been a major issue in the state legislature ever since.

Nu-Kermeni Kermah
Once shy, she took on a bully governor

On the video, teenager, Nu-Kermeni Kermah (“Nu Nu”) is at a rally and shouting that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie should not ignore students like her. It’s hard to believe she was once a frightened 8-year-old who had a tough time fitting in after her family emigrated from Liberia.

As she mastered English, became a tennis champ, and made friends, her confidence soared. By senior year, “Nu Nu” was student body president of Trenton Central High School.

She spoke about the tragic neglect of the 80-year-old Trenton Central High School at the October 2013 rally organized by Healthy Schools Now!, a student and community advocacy group working to publicize the horrendous conditions in some New Jersey schools.

“It was embarrassing to bring people to our school,” says Kermah. “The other kids would call it disgusting.”

No one from the state government would visit Trenton Central, so students created poster-size images of the decrepit school. As a silent protest, they placed the photos of the school’s exposed wires and mold-covered walls outside the state capitol for all to see. They also posted videos and images on social media.

National attention surged when NBC turned their cameras on the school for an evening news segment that featured an interview with an art teacher whose classroom ceiling sometimes dripped sewage.

A few months later, Gov. Christie released funds to rebuild the school, and execute major school projects in Gloucester City, Orange, and Patterson, N.J. 

The new Trenton Central is slated to open in 2019.

“I love that future students will have a safe and beautiful place to learn,” says Kermah, who is now studying journalism at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University. 

Gabriel Hernandez
Connected with His School and Community Through Activism

Gabriel Hernandez has a strong voice in his school—literally, as the student who reads the morning announcements at Horlick High School in Racine, Wis., but also figuratively as a member of the student organization YES! (Youth Empowered in the Struggle).

The student-led, social justice organization has approximately 600 members, representing 15 Wisconsin schools and universities. Working alongside its parent group, Voces de la Frontera, YES! has helped to forestall legislation that threatens immigrant communities, including a recent proposal that would encourage law enforcement to contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement during routine interactions.

YES! supported two rallies that drew tens of thousands to Madison. “All that activism played a role in killing that bill,” Hernandez says. “We really made people think about how it would affect the entire state.”

YES! chapters also organize around issues affecting students’ districts and schools. 

This year, Hernandez and dozens of other students organized a morning “walk-in.” Students, educators, and parents gathered at the school and entered the building together. 

The event was part of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools’ National Day of Action, during which 800 schools in 30 cities hosted walk-ins, each focused on a local issue.

”We wanted our district to know that we are deeply concerned about their block schedule proposal, and we demanded a stop to any rush decisions,” says Hernandez.

Students and educators are concerned about the change from the current eight-period schedule to four much longer classes that rotate every other day. What’s more, the plan makes no provisions for special needs students, puts electives at risk of being cut, and denies teachers adequate time to convert their lessons.

At press time, it appeared that the block schedule plan would not be enacted for the 2016 – 2017 school year. 

“I will graduate this spring and go to college, but first I want to leave a better environment for the students at Horlick,” says Hernandez. “I hope they will pick up the fight—just as we did from the students who came before us—and make their school a better place.”

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.