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News ::
Boston students confront state officials on inequality in education
22 Jun 2001
On Thursday June 14, Boston youth from Teen Empowerment spoke with top figures in Massachusetts State education about the conditions in Boston Public Schools. The youth invited state officials to a two-part dialogue session about resources for urban schools and about the MCAS.
On Thursday June 14, Boston youth from Teen Empowerment spoke with top figures in Massachusetts State education about the conditions in Boston Public Schools. The youth invited state officials to a two-part dialogue session about resources for urban schools and about the MCAS.
The youth asked that the state provide adequate school buildings, with acceptable health standards and appropriate materials for learning before requiring urban youth to pass a standardized test such as the MCAS to graduate from public high school. Starting with this year's sophomore class, all Massachusetts students must pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, between grades 10 and 12 in order to receive a high school diploma.

"How do you feel about [the fact that] you know we don't have the resources and you still give us the test?" asked Maggie Jeannite, a student at Dorchester High.

Teen Empowerment Executive Director Stanley Pollack compared the MCAS situation to "a race, where one person has Nike's and the other is barefoot with their feet tied together and they're told to 'go.'"

"We want the Department of Education to become a vocal advocate for increasing resources in city schools as a first priority. As heads of departments, we would like to know what you are going to do to provide these resources to urban schools," stated Asia Grady, a youth organizer who attends Bunker Hill Community College.

Using a video produced by Teen Empowerment, the youth demonstrated that urban high schools are more crowded and have less facilities, like science laboratories and athletic spaces, than suburban schools in the state. Several students expressed frustration that due to lack of funds for new textbooks they are not allowed to take their books home to study, even during final exams. Terrel Nicholas, a student at Madison Park High, pointed out that in some schools, students go without the most basic needs, such as oxygen to breathe. "What do you plan to do now to rebuild our schools?" he asked, "My school has a ventilation problem. My brain needs oxygen to function and without it I have trouble learning in school."

Demetrius Jackson, a youth organizer who attends Charlestown High asserted, "No one wants to be in an uncomfortable place. It's damaging to people's trust in the state when they are American citizens and not provided sanitary conditions [in their schools]. So we need people like you to be our voice in the government."

Alicea Evans from South Boston High expressed dismay that some of the officials seemed to recognize and comment on the suburban schools shown in the video, but that no one recognized the urban schools. "That tells me that you've never been to my school, so how can you make decisions that affect it?"

"It's not fair to punish kids for the mistakes of our government. There is historical inequality in education…At this rate there will be more prisons than schools," said Asia Grady.

Teen Empowerment is an organization that hires youth as community organizers and empowers them to impact decisions that affect their lives. Youth organizers described their jobs as "serious," "vital," and "evolutionary."

"One word that describes my job is 'powerful' because it has changed my life and it has the power to change a lot more," said Elsa Martinez, a student at East Boston High.

The youth organizers structured the two-hour dialogue session using the Teen Empowerment model, an interactive structure that puts parties of unequal power on equal ground to communicate. In the past, Teen Empowerment has brought together teachers and students, police and urban youth, and gang members using this model. This dialogue was the culmination of their 2000-2001 academic year program, which focused on education.

One of the activities paired youth and adults for one-on-one discussions of a question such as "How and why did you decide to do the work you're doing?" "What is or was the best thing about your high school?" "What does the ideal high school look like?" and "How has the MCAS affected your life?" The photograph shows Terrel Nicholas and Jim Peyser talking during this activity.

Among the officials who attended were David Driscoll, Commissioner of Education, Jim Peyser, Chair of the Board of Education, and Jeff Nellhaus, Department of Education Director of Standards. During the dialogue, Driscoll and others brought up the complexity of the issues, the fact that MCAS is part of a larger bill aimed at equality among students and schools, the limitations of the state government to influence the city government or individual teachers' choices, and that there are people in state government working hard to correct the inequality in education. At the end of the dialogue session, Seamone Compass, a student at English High School, invited the officials to continue the dialogue started that day. Driscoll, Peyser and Nellhaus expressed interest in holding smaller group meetings with the youth over the summer. According to Teen Empowerment Program Coordinator Jennifer Banister, the youth are considering calling a summit on education next fall when the first round of MCAS scores is released.
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