Kelvyn Park sophomore Bianca Garcia recruited a small group of classmates to start a youth advocacy council and come up with ways to improve their school and community. The idea came via the Mikva Challenge, a non-profit organization that works with high schools to promote youth activism and civic engagement. Bianca, 16, talked to Consulting Editor Lorraine Forte about starting the council and the problems teens face in high schools today.
How did you get involved with the Mikva Challenge?
In World Studies class, the teacher mentioned Mikva. I liked the part about traveling, and I worked on political campaigns—for Joyce Washington, then for Wesley Clark and John Kerry. As I got into it, I got a feel for what the program is really about—teenagers getting out there and getting involved. It’s cool because before that I thought, “Well, [politics] is an adult’s decision. It doesn’t really affect me.” Then I started recruiting other kids.
What has the youth advocacy council talked about so far?
Right now we’re talking about school security because that’s the biggest problem. The security guards should be more aware of gang violence in the hallways and try to prevent fights, instead of just coming 10 minutes later when the fight is already done.
Does gang violence affect how well you learn?
It affects us so much. Last year, every other period—this is exaggerating, but this is what it felt like—there was a fight. The teachers had to go out and stop it. Then everybody in class starts talking about it, and the teacher goes off the topic and then that day is messed up. Let’s say we had to review for a test. We didn’t have time, but we’re still going to have that test tomorrow.
What else have you talked about?
Better teachers. A lot of teachers just give you the answers instead of actually explaining it to you. I hate that. I don’t need that. I need someone to explain to me how to get the answer. And some teachers are used to teaching older kids, or younger kids if they came from elementary school. First you need to understand the student and how their mind works, then try to teach them.
Give me an example.
Last year in algebra, we spent two days on a lesson. The next two days it’s a different lesson. The teacher was used to moving quickly because she used to teach seniors. But I’m a freshman. I grasp slowly, so you need to spend more time with me. Finally, after the third week of school, she slowed down.
What advice would you give for teachers who don’t know how to teach teenagers?
Be patient. A lot of teenagers, like myself, are very stubborn. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions. Understand where a teenager is coming from—like, the reason someone is acting out is because she’s in front of her friends. And teenagers are busy. They can have a lot of stress in everyday life. Let’s say you work to help out your family, or you have sisters to take care of or problems at home. But at the same time, you’ve got 50 pages of homework. If teachers see a student is struggling, take them aside and explain to them, “Why don’t you come in the morning to have tutoring, or after school?” I don’t have a job, but I have a sister that I have to baby-sit. My teachers come early in the morning, so I come in the morning. I’ll come after school. Just because they’re taking that extra mile, I’m going to do it.
Tell me the biggest problem kids have in high school today.
Peer pressure. Half of the students who were doing well at the beginning of the year are now failing or in gangs or dropping out. It’s because of peer pressure. Their friends are going out after school, going to the movies, or saying, “Let’s just cut my last two classes. It doesn’t matter.” You have to try not to follow other people, and it’s hard.