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A half hour special from In the Mix, the award winning weekly PBS series

School budget cuts, overcrowding, outdated policies…how can a young person get the education he or she needs in the face of these all too common obstacles?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 Program:
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, 2003)
  • 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: Looking Back…Moving Forward"
  • 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.


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 government

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

Further Discussion:
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?

Related Activity:
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 ideas?
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

Further Discussion:
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 effect?

Related Activity:
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.

Related Activity:
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 voices heard?
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

Related Activity:
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 schools?
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 fewer fights

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

Further Discussion:
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?

Related Activity:
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.

Related Activity:
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 the community.

(For more information about the group, as well as sample flyers and surveys, visit

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 do this?
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

Further Discussion:
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?

Related Activity:
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 Students?
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 time management

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

Further Discussion:
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?

Related Activity:
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 approach.

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 High

Further Discussion:
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?

Related Activity:
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 other groups?
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


Teens participate 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

Further Discussion:
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

Further Discussion:
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

Related Activity:
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 community.


The key concepts:

  1. 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 be measured.

  2. 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
    • Fundraise
    • Identify problems and possible solutions
    • Identify targets, allies, opponents, and audiences
    • Get media attention
    • Recognize alternate paths to the goals

  3. Maintaining a democratic decision-making process:
    • Ensure that every member has a voice in planning the group's actions


Featured on the program:

Youth in Action
Providence, RI

New York, NY
(212) 213-6121

Youth Organizing Communities
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 780-7605

Gay Straight Alliance Network
San Francisco, CA
(415) 552-4229

Umbrella organizations:

What Kids Can Do
(401) 247-7665

Youth Venture

Campaign for Fiscal Equity
(212) 867-8455

Funder's Collaborative on Youth Organizing
c/o Jewish Fund for Justice
(212) 213-2113

Research organizations:

National Center for Education Statistics

Institute for Education and Social Policy
Education Advisory Committee NYU
(212) 998-5880

How to Reach IN THE MIX:

STUDENT POWER!: ORGANIZING FOR SCHOOL REFORM carries one-year off-air taping rights and performance rights. Check your local PBS listings for airtimes.

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2003 In the Mix. STUDENT POWER!: ORGANIZING FOR SCHOOL REFORM is a production of Castle Works Inc. In the Mix was created by WNYC Radio. This special was funded by the Open Society Institute, Youth Initiatives; for more information, visit