Two years ago, James Muhammad, then a sophomore at Hirsch Metro High, got fed up with school reform rhetoric. Amid the multitude of voices, one group was missing: students.

To get his opinions heard, Muhammad participated in “Voices of Youth,” an open forum for students to talk about school reform. A videotape of the conference, shot and edited by youth at the Community TV Network, is now available for educators to share with administrators and students. (See note below.)

Sparked by the energy and ideas generated at the conference, James soon became a member of his local school council. Now a senior, he is also an appointed member of the Illinois State Board of Education.

“I [get] the word out to the administrators of the Chicago Public Schools so they … know what’s going on in the classrooms,” James explains.

Held at the University of Illinois at Chicago on May 10, 1997, “Voices of Youth” was organized by a group of 10 high school students recruited by the Lindeman Center, an education and resource-sharing organization. The conference attracted 60 high school students from across the city. Participants teamed up in small groups to discuss their concerns and generate ideas for school improvement. They then presented their suggestions to peers and CPS administrators.

Lynda Parker, a math teacher at Kenwood Academy, recently showed “Voices of Youth” to three of her classes. She believes teachers and administrators can use the video as a tool to connect with their students.

“I enjoyed … the dialogue between teacher and students,” she says. “The kids had a lot to say.”

Parker says students identified with concerns expressed by conference participants such as James, who feels schools place too much stock in standardized tests. Such tests do not “reflect on who you are, what you’re learning and where you’re going to go,” he says in the video.

Parker’s students also are troubled by student apathy and teachers’ insensitivity to their lives, issues discussed in the video by Adriana Paniagua, then a Curie High freshman. “Many of the students believe that … they don’t have much say,” Adriana explains. “That’s what makes us not want to learn.”

But like the students in the video, Parker says her students realize their own behavior also could improve.

“[My students] took responsibility for what they need to do,” she observes, such as getting to class on time and keeping school facilities neat.

Aimee Horton, co-founder of the Lindeman Center, says students can contribute to school improvement efforts if educators listen to what they have to say. “Students can play such an important role in reform. But we’ve barely tapped that resource.”

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