“It is not fair to have policies put in place that affect me, and I have no say. I want to advocate for students and let them know that their voices do matter!” –Shondel, Coro Brooklyn Youth Advisory Council.
“I now know I want to pursue a career in education and public policy. My experience can be a great contribution to creating change and protecting the future of our schools and children.” –Kadesha, Coro Brooklyn Youth Advisory Council
Along with the dozens of Chicago public schools that are being closed this fall, 11 district-run schools are in line to co-locate with a second school sharing their building. New York City has been coping with these issues for several years now. Our experience should serve as an example to the Chicago Public Schools system.
Too often, closing and co-locating schools pits parents, teachers, and principals against one another. Parents get anxious when they hear news of a school shutting down or having another school placed within an existing one. They get hostile when no one is able to tell them how it is actually going to work.
The Office of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz is all too familiar with the issue. Handling it is of the utmost importance, because when adults get upset, their concerns spill over into the classroom and land right on our children.
Creating open dialog
In Brooklyn, the borough president’s office started by working with the adults and creating a focus on the issue through a series of breakfasts entitled “Understanding Co-Locations: Finding Workable Solutions.” Parents, teachers and principals from several school buildings, all of whom were in the midst of trying to cope with co-location, were invited to participate in an open and honest dialog around how to make the process better. To give everyone the feeling they were on neutral ground, the breakfasts were hosted away from schools, held instead at the President’s Borough Hall building.
Participants were divided into four working groups: Sharing Space, Sharing Staff, Creating a Building Council and How to Create a Campus Template. One problem became clear immediately: If each school group remained sitting tightly together, how would we get each group to interact with the others?
So, like in kindergarten, each school was asked to count off, creating groups with a diverse range of members. Now they could share ideas across schools. Each working group concentrated on its own topic and that discussion was followed by a collective session in which a member from each group presented that group’s findings to everyone.
Watching the process was an education in itself. At first, each table was so quiet it seemed nothing would happen. But then the voices started to rise, lively conversations ensued, and the note-takers began to write down great ideas. At the end of the breakfast, one participant asked, “Can we do this every month?”
Ask the students
It was essential that everyone there felt listened to and respected. But something was still missing. What about the students? Where were their voices? Students were going to be the ones most affected by these changes. Surely they should have something to say.
To address this missing element, the borough president’s office first partnered with Coro New York, a highly respected youth leadership training program, to create the Brooklyn Youth Advisory Council. The council was made up of alumni of Coro’s High School Program, called Exploring Leadership. Coro had instituted this program to further students’ personal, professional and leadership skills through meaningful civic engagement experiences.
Together, Coro and the office got lucky and found a willing partner in the Department of Education. The department promised that the recommendations of these students would be considered and acted upon, and the previously absent voice of students would be heard, loud and clear.
The Brooklyn Youth Advisory Council began their work by conducting research around how city policy, particularly education policy, is made and how it then gets implemented. Most importantly, the council conducted surveys (of over 400 of their peers) and hosted focus groups at three school buildings, each of which had at least three schools sharing the same building. The students gathered information and came up with a detailed list of recommendations about what school co-locations could do to better support the community at their campuses.
And did they ever create some truly terrific solutions! Here are just a few:
Initiate an exchange program between schools so students could take advantage of different course offerings among schools on the campus.
Ensure there is student representation on the campus governance bodies.
Create a Campus Youth Council to engage students in activities across schools and publish a newsletter about all the activities happening on the campus.
Launch a Youth Court/Justice Board made up of students to handle incidents when students do not follow current campus rules and policies.
Solving real-world problems
The most important ideas in the conversation about co-locations—from the students themselves—thus became part of the solution. These strong, wise voices found not only the best ways to improve the environment at each school, but also how students could stay actively involved. The bottom line was clear: Students want to be able to collaborate and interact with the students at all of the schools in their building.
One magical afternoon, the Brooklyn Youth Council presented their findings to the Brooklyn Borough President, his staff, and the deputy chancellor of education of the New York City Department of Education and his staff.
Before long, The New York City Department of Education was piloting the council’s recommendations across Brooklyn and, we hope, will soon pilot them across all five boroughs of New York City.
Perhaps the Board of Education in Chicago should invite students to their meetings, rather than ejecting them!
Every day we ask our students to think and solve problems in the classroom. But the solution is clear: Give them the opportunity to use their skills in the real world, especially when the problems involve them personally. Students want great schools!
Margaret Kelley is the Education Policy Analyst in the Office of the Borough President in Brooklyn, New York.