POWER!: ORGANIZING FOR SCHOOL REFORM
On PBS (Check local listings)
A half hour special from In the Mix, the award winning weekly PBS
School budget cuts,
overcrowding, outdated policies
how can a young person get the education
he or she needs in the face of these all too common obstacles? This program
aims to empower teens by chronicling the struggles and accomplishments
of several student-run organizations engaged in grassroots school reform
activism. These inspiring teens demonstrate successful ways to organize,
recruit, train youth leaders, and identify problems and solutions, as
well as the positive impact on their own lives and plans for the future.
This program was made possible by the Open Society Institute, Youth Initiatives.
How To Use This
Independent research on previous In the Mix specials have shown
that these programs engage the interest of teenagers, deliver information,
catalyze discussion on critical issues, as well as promote analytical
thinking and a greater sense of self-efficacy among teens. The aim is
to encourage thought and allow teens to generate their own creative solutions.
In this guide, we
have outlined specific questions based on the program's content, along
with answers. These questions can be used to open up more analytical discussion
about related concepts. Also included are in-class activities and longer-term
projects. We suggest showing the entire program to the group and then
running individual segments followed by discussion.
Did you know?
- More than 3 of
every 10 U.S. students drop out of high school; for blacks and Hispanics,
that figure increases to almost 5 out of every 10. (The Heartland Institute,
- In October 2000,
some 3.8 million young adults, more than 10% of the 16- through 24-year-olds,
were not enrolled in a high school program and had not completed high
school. (National Council on Education Statistics, 2002)
In the Mix Awards include:
- 2002, 2000 CINE
Golden Eagle Awards for "Media Literacy: Get The News?",
"9-11: Looking Back
Moving Forward", and "Financial
Literacy: On the Money"
- 2002, 2000, 1999
Young Adult Library Services Association's "Notable Videos List"
for: "Ecstasy", "Live by the Gun, Die by the Gun",
"School Violence: Answers From the Inside", and "9-11:
- 2001,1999 National
Mental Health Association Media Award
- 1999 The Academy
of Television Arts & Sciences' Honor Roll
- National Emmy for
Community Service Programming
This guide to STUDENT
POWER!: ORGANIZING FOR SCHOOL REFORM contains four major sections,
which include questions, discussion topics, and activities. A list of
resources on organizing for school reform is also included.
YOUTH IN ACTION
In Providence, Rhode
Island, the teens of Youth In Action demonstrate how they successfully
run in-school health and anti-violence education programs for younger
students, as well as cooperate with city government on school reform issues.
1. What are the three
areas on which Youth In Action concentrates?
health-related issues such as sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy;
anti-violence such as bullying and conflict resolution; being politically
active by lobbying, participating in speakouts and working with local
2. Youth In Action
members gain leadership experience by playing active roles in the organization.
What are some of these roles?
they oversee the organization's activities and teams; facilitate meetings,
hire staff; actively recruit other teens to join
Chase, 16, says that Youth In Action's mission is to make their community
a better place by developing youth leadership. Do you think that youth
leadership can make an impact on a school or community? Why? What are
some examples of this that we see in our own school or community?
Arrange for teens to present a peer education program on a single topic
to a group of younger students. Topics might include: relationship/dating
issues, safe sex, bullying, conflict resolution, etc. As a class, plan
out the elements and schedule of the program, discussing how they can
most effectively address the topic and engage younger peers in learning.
Then, divide your class into groups, assigning each group a different
section of the program (e.g. initial discussion, presenting information
and facts, role-playing sketches, etc.). As a possible follow-up after
the program is presented, have the younger students fill out a short survey
evaluating the program, and then discuss the results with the peer educators.
3. Why did the Youth
In Action members support their new mayor and approach him with their
they saw him as progressive and willing to listen to them; they found
from experience that change had to happen from the top down instead of
the bottom up
Why do you think the mayor responded positively to Youth In Action? What
characteristics of the teens and their organization might have impressed
him and encouraged him to take them seriously? (they came to him with
a well organized and realistic proposal) What might have had the opposite
As a group, create a flow chart of school and community figures who play
a role in local education issues. Encourage teens to start from "the
top" and work all the way down to the classroom level. In the process,
it may be necessary to explain and discuss the structure of your community's
government and school administration. Identify the people most likely
to be sympathetic to teens' concerns.
Arrange for a local official to visit the group. In preparation, present
three relevant school-related issues to the students (e.g. shortage of
textbooks, detention policy, etc.) and, through a group vote, choose one
on which to focus. As a class, plan a presentation for the visiting official,
breaking it down into sections such as: summarizing the problem, expressing
teen views, suggested solutions, and a realistic plan of action. Divide
the class into teams to cover each section. After the presentation, ask
the official to share his or her reactions.
4. According to Mayor
Cicilline, why is it important for young people to organize and make their
when young people come together as a group it's harder to be ignored
(strength in numbers); young people have ideas and experiences that are
valuable to decision-makers in government; government works better when
young people are a part of it
5. What are some of
the concerns and changes the Youth In Action members are focusing on?
Chase would like to know exactly where money from the education budget
is going; he would also like teachers to think more about students as
individuals rather than numbers; Luis would like educators to concentrate
on the cause of a student's bad behavior rather than just punishment
6. What has Youth
In Action been able to achieve so far?
two members serve on the mayor's advisory committee to talk about city
issues; the creation of a youth council where young people would have
a regular dialogue with the mayor
If there is no youth council in your community, arrange a meeting between
teens and your mayor or another local government official to discuss the
creation of one. If there is such a council, invite one or more members
to speak to your group.
The teen members of
Publicolor show how they work with New York City students to paint the
interiors of their schools with bright colors, empowering them to improve
their learning environments and helping them gain valuable skills.
1. How are both older
and younger students involved with transforming the atmosphere of their
younger students: decide which colors they want to paint on the walls;
choose which area they will be working in; choose which job in the painting
process they will perform; older students: coordinate meals, get supplies;
hand out materials; and supervise the younger students
2. Publicolor could
just bring in adult volunteers to paint the schools. How do the students
benefit from doing the painting themselves?
it gives them a chance to interact with other young people from all
over the city; the experience combines learning with real life; the skills
they learn in the painting process are skills they can use in the classroom
3. How has the use
of bright colors changed the students' attitudes?
they are more eager to work; they feel brighter and have fun; they're
proud of their accomplishment and less likely to be destructive or leave
graffiti; they want to come to school; they feel less tense; there are
4. What do these teens
say they've gained from their participation in the Publicolor program?
leadership and speaking skills; an understanding of what goes on in
the real world; open-mindedness; how to stay focused on a task; how to
be a team player
What are some other things that students might gain from an experience
like Publicolor? Why are these things sometimes difficult for young people
to learn in a classroom?
With permission from school administration, have students organize their
own painting project involving their peers. Start with planning and scheduling
(what will be painted, how colors will be chosen, how materials will be
procured, how teams will be organized and supervised, a realistic timeline).
After the project is completed, have students share their reactions and
experiences through a written assignment or group discussion. As a possible
follow-up, students might create a survey to collect data on how their
project benefited the entire school.
If painting is not an option for your school, have students brainstorm
in what other ways they can beautify their school. Some ideas for beautifying
hallways and classrooms might be: installing bulletin boards or adding
decorative trims to existing bulletin boards, putting student artwork
or posters in the halls, or painting a mural. Outside of the classroom,
students can take on slightly more challenging projects such as beautifying
the bathrooms with murals, tile mosaics, and/or new mirrors. Once a few
ideas have been explored, have students divide up into teams to tackle
each project. If possible, have students distribute a survey to the rest
of the school to measure the project's impact.
Teens in East Los
Angeles participate in the United Students Club, a part of the activist
group Youth Organizing Communities (YOC). They work to reduce the dropout
rate and improve the quality of education at Roosevelt, the country's
largest high school, by cooperating with administrators, teachers, and
(For more information
about the group, as well as sample flyers and surveys, visit www.inthemix.org/schoolreform_index.html
1. What are some of
the goals of United Students (US)?
to build student power to improve public education in East Los Angeles;
to lower the high dropout rate; to help students understand that they
can be decision makers in their community; to give every student a voice
2. How does the organization
stay strong and continue to grow?
many students stay involved with United Students after they leave high
school as full or part-time staff; they act as coordinators, create agendas,
raise funding, train new student leaders and facilitate meetings
3. One of the priorities
of United Students is gaining student support and recruiting new members,
but first they have to make classmates aware of the club. How do they
they ask teachers for permission to make announcements in class about
the club; they make and display posters; they wear United Students t-shirts;
they seek out students who say they don't care about their school and
talk to them about their mission
4. What helps the
United Students find potential new members and encourage them to get involved?
they use the 3 C's; they Contact students about what the club
is doing; they emphasize a Connection, such as a common situation
like the tardy room; they ask students to Commit by getting contact
information to put on their "phone bank" list to keep the teens
informed of the club's activities via e-mail and phone; they invite them
to workshops and encourage them to join
5. How did the members
of United Students identify the most pressing problems in their school?
they created a survey that asked students their opinions on issues
such as how they felt about their culture and the need for ethnic studies,
what they learned in class, and the "tardy room"
6. What was the "tardy
room" at Roosevelt High? What problems became clear after United
Students tabulated results of their survey?
when students were late for class, they were sent to the cafeteria,
then held for the whole period and assigned detention hours; the tardy
room contributed to truancy at the school because most students said they
cut class to avoid it; students said that the tardy room did not help
them be on time
The survey was one very effective way for US to collect information and
identify what they needed to focus on. What are some other ways to identify
the problems your classmates care most about? How can these be carried
out so that they are as useful as possible?
As a group, create a survey to be distributed to students at your school.
Brainstorm a list of issues to address, and how to create questions that
will result in useful information. Decide whether this survey will be
conducted one-on-one in person or handed out. Tabulate the survey results
and discuss what they mean (ex. Is this a fair representation of the student
body? Were the results surprising or expected? How could the survey be
improved, if necessary?) As a possible follow-up, have students choose
one issue and create a presentation to a school or local official (see
Related Activity in Section One).
7. Why did Ms. Quemada,
the Roosevelt High principal, listen to and work with the members of United
she believed that they were willing to be part of the solution; she
saw them as a group committed to resolving issues that affected the whole
student body; she recognized that the high number of survey results identified
issues that needed her attention
8. What was the new
tardy policy that US presented to school administration?
students would be flagged according to how often they were tardy; students
with a history of extreme tardiness would meet with a counselor to get
to the root of the problem; students who did not show improvement on attendance
and tardiness would be required to attend a life skills class to learn
9. What goals has
United Students accomplished so far?
they got two Chicano studies classes added to the curriculum; two more
counselors were added to the staff; the tardy room was abolished
Like the members of Youth In Action in Rhode Island, United Students members
focus on outcomes that are realistic and attainable. What are some examples
of issues in your school? What possible solutions could be categorized
as "attainable"? What possible solutions would not be attainable?
Have teens brainstorm what issues, if any, the student body feels is not
receiving adequate or the appropriate attention from the school board.
(They can even use the results from the poll/survey they took under the
direction of the related activity after Question 6.) Then, have the entire
group write individual letters to the school board emphasizing which of
those issues they support. It may be necessary to teach teens how to write
formal business letters. It would also be a good idea to discuss letter-writing
campaigns in general to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of such an
10. How is US using
the media as a tool to help them attain their goals?
they contactnewspaper reporters to cover their activities, which gets
out information and can shift public opinion towards what they're doing;
they practice being interviewed; they're learning to create Web sites
and radio programs; they're putting together media plans and press conferences;
one member (Ana) created a video that illustrated the problems at Roosevelt
If you wanted to raise awareness about an issue in our school, how would
you do it? Which types of media would be most effective in reaching other
students and teachers? Parents and other adults? People outside the community?
How could you use one type of media to get other types of media interested
in covering this issue?
As a class, create a 4-page newsletter that addresses a school issue.
First, discuss the issue and decide what the newsletter should aim to
accomplish. Divide students into teams to complete various tasks, including:
research, writing, artwork and photography, layout, and distribution.
In addition to making the newsletter, you might have teens distribute
the finished product to adult allies such as the Parent Teacher Association
and student government, as well as to target audiences such as the teachers'
union and school board.
11. How has the success
of United Students had a positive effect on its members, as well as on
they feel they now know how to lead and encourage other young people
to be leaders; they feel like they are changing things not just for themselves
but for younger family members and future generations; they feel that
younger friends will admire their accomplishments, want to get involved
and work towards graduating; they feel empowered to change all types of
problems around them; they're inspired to go to college and have hopes
for a brighter future
KEY CONCEPTS IN ORGANIZING FOR ACTIVISM
in a GayStraight Alliance group's organizing workshop, which illustrates
the basic ideas of and first steps towards any school reform effort.
1. What is the very
first thing that a group of activists need to decide on?
a primary goal
If a student activist group was formed in our school, what are some examples
of a primary goal they might choose?
2. What are the other
early steps for a group?
becoming recognized by school and/or local administration; raising
money for operations
What kinds of fundraisers are realistic for our school and community?
What kinds of activities would interest our peers (ex. basketball tournaments,
car washes, bake sales, dances)? How much can we expect to make? How can
we pay for initial costs? Who in the community can we approach to become
our allies in this effort?
3. Another important
step is to identify who might be a strong ally for your group. Where might
you find these people?
school staff such as teachers or administrators; student government;
school alumni, community organizations
4. Why is it important
to give everyone a voice in the group?
people may lose interest in the group and leave
Create a handout that outlines the key concepts in organizing for activism
(see sidebar). Lead a discussion with the class on the importance of each
point. Encourage students to give specific examples in your school or
KEY CONCEPTS IN ORGANIZING FOR ACTIVISM
The key concepts:
- Strategic planning:
Determine what change the group wants to effect, as well as how that
change might occur over a specific timeline and how the change might
- Setting a specific
and realistic long-term goal:
Work in steps towards this goal, while fulfilling intermediary goals
along the way, such as:
- Recruit and
train members Recognition
by the administration as a student group
- Identify problems
and possible solutions
- Identify targets,
allies, opponents, and audiences
- Get media attention
- Recognize alternate
paths to the goals
- Maintaining a democratic
- Ensure that
every member has a voice in planning the group's actions
Youth in Action
New York, NY
Youth Organizing Communities
Los Angeles, CA
Gay Straight Alliance
San Francisco, CA
What Kids Can Do
Campaign for Fiscal
on Youth Organizing
c/o Jewish Fund for Justice
National Center for
Institute for Education
and Social Policy
Education Advisory Committee NYU
How to Reach IN
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POWER!: ORGANIZING FOR SCHOOL REFORM is a production of Castle Works
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