Homegrown School Reform

Strategies for nuturing young activists.

Across the country, teenage activists, impatient over policies such as zero tolerance, lack of arts education, standardized tests and censorship, are working to bring change to their schools.

The school community, with its network of supportive teachers and their fellow classmates, is in many ways an ideal setting for students to cut their teeth as activists. Wendy Lesko of Activism 2000 and Teaching Tolerance Research Fellow Sara Cohan offer these strategies to help teachers nurture young advocates.

  • Listen to student ideas and proposals but resist making judgments initially. Maintain a distance from the projects to allow students ownership, but continually direct students in paths that will help them succeed.

  • The first step in becoming an effective activist is to gain a thorough understanding of the subject from multiple perspectives, including the opposing views.

  • After they identify a project focus, students can conduct fact-finding missions (e.g., surveys, interviews with school officials) to find out what others already know about the topic and how they feel about it.

  • Have students identify allies who would be willing to assist in their campaign.

  • Students should seek out advice from professional activists.

  • Help students develop and facilitate forums — clubs, assemblies, etc. — to discuss the issue. Encourage them to invite members of the faculty, community and other school clubs.

  • Consider giving class or service-learning credit for certain advocacy activities, including the creation of a Web site, e-newsletters, etc.

  • Students can also write essays about their experience as activists. For example, ask them to write about the weaknesses in their projects and how these problems can be resolved during their next campaign.

  • Provide a collegial climate to help students assess their progress and continue to toss out alternative approaches.

  • A petition is easy to ignore, but hundreds of letters are more difficult to dismiss. Students can create an actual report that can be read and used by local media.

  • Announcing their findings should be a public event. Make sure students invite the press, district-level school officials and community leaders to the presentation.

  • Maintain interest especially during the inevitable ebb and flow of an advocacy campaign. Ensure that the project is well planned so students can continue working on it throughout the year amidst their other extracurricular activities and academic commitment.

  • Remind students frequently that change never happens overnight. Even if the project’s outcome differs from the initial goal, it may still constitute a success.
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Learning for Justice in the South

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