Op/ed: Student voice vital in district decisions

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Lincoln students were front and center last week in bringing the public’s attention to the unacceptable state of our school buildings, Oregon’s years of neglect in funding schools, and the City’s unwillingness to address the pressure that population growth puts on our schools. They also, rightfully, called out the PPS Board of Directors for not ensuring that students are central to the decision making that shapes their education and their daily lives.

As a board, we hear from and problem-solve with many people throughout the district, enthusiastic or frustrated about a myriad of issues involving PPS. But students are always the most effective advocates. When students come together, mobilize, and advocate, they bring the most important input to the table: the student perspective. They become the loudest voice in the collective effort for change.

This year, the entire district has a new dress code that removes most restrictions on what constitutes “acceptable” attire. This policy resulted from a groundswell of resistance starting with middle school girls, school by school, insisting that the district recognize the restrictions as fundamentally sexist. They were right. The district formed a work group of students, parents, teachers and administrators and together they rewrote the policy. This enacted real change across Portland Public Schools. Because the students insisted that the district support a path for student-led change, we got a new dress code that better reflects our community values.

Student activism last week focused on support for passing a bond to rebuild our schools, but also insisted that students be heard and respected. Many students served on the Bond Master Planning Committees for Madison, Benson and Lincoln and are deeply invested in the district’s long-range plan to rebuild our schools. When the board reached the difficult decision to move the bond measure from November to May, it did so in the interest of having the strongest bond proposal with the greatest shot at being approved by the voters – 80% of whom don’t have kids in school. It was, however, an abrupt decision, and we should have solicited the input of those in the city who have been committed to the vision for rebuilding our schools, and most of all, students. The aftermath of the student protests is both a heightened awareness of the problems in our deteriorating buildings, and the beginning of a movement to unite students from all of our high schools to support a campaign to rebuild our schools.

The PPS Board has a different student representative each year. This year’s representative is Aliemah Bradley from Jefferson, who also leads the district’s SuperSAC (Superintendent’s Student Advisory Committee). SuperSAC has had low participation in recent years, but Aliemah says her goal is to get more student stakeholders involved and to re-energize SuperSAC to support and cultivate student activism. Aliemah and I, with the rest of our board, are working with Lincoln student leaders now to arrange a meeting in the next few weeks to discuss the student walk out, how it was handled by PPS, and how to influence the district to be more supportive of student participation, in all its forms, moving forward.

When asked about this school year, Bradley said, “We have always had a student body in PPS with lots of energy and commitment to organizing. My hope this year is to create more space for our voice in the decision making process of the board, and, through SuperSAC, create space and opportunity to cultivate self advocacy on a district level. I can’t wait to help mobilize students to pass the bond in May and have an impact on all district issues.”

Amy Kohnstamm is Vice-Chair of the PPS school board and represents Lincoln’s district. She is a member of the Lincoln class of 1983.