When it comes to conversations about education policy, students are often the least heard.
But amplifying young voices is the goal of a new program launched by two Memphis-based advocacy groups, Campaign for School Equity and Latino Memphis.
“I joined the group because of things that are going on around school, and I believe that we as leaders can change it,” said Angel Smith, 16, a senior at Hillcrest High School, one of 10 schools in the program. “I want to change how our school does discipline … and learn why some schools have more money than others.”
Many students feel powerless to improve conditions at their schools, said Katie Martin, who will oversee the program as advocacy manager for Campaign for School Equity. “It is so exciting to help them discover their own voices and realize that they can have a direct impact on the issues that matter to them,” she said.
About 100 high school students from Fairley, Martin Luther King Preparatory, Hillcrest, Trezevant and Southwest Early College High will take a monthly class on topics ranging from advocacy strategies to political campaign development.
Beginning in November, high-schoolers from Cordova, Wooddale, White Station, Kingsbury, and Southwind will also have classes at their schools.
Mendell Grinter, executive director of Campaign for School Equity, said students have already expressed interest in pushing for better school facilities and more discipline practices based on restorative justice.
The goal is for students to help shape Campaign for School Equity’s legislative platform and run their own school-based advocacy campaigns. In December, students will vote on priorities for the upcoming legislative season, Grinter said.
Students will take courses on research, writing opinion pieces, advocacy methods and campaign development. They also will meet with their local representatives, such as Memphis City Councilwoman Patrice Robinson, who will speak with Hillcrest High students in late October.
Campaign for School Equity is funding the program, and students were selected based on their interest and school recommendations.
Grinter said the program marks a shift in his group’s priorities. Formerly known as the Tennessee chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, Campaign for School Equity has focused on promoting school choice for black families and engaging Memphis clergy around education.
“There are programs in Memphis to reach parents and community members and get them involved with advocacy, but not really students,” Grinter said. “We’re really going to double down on creating that space.”
Latino Memphis is an advocacy group for the city’s Hispanic and Latino communities and is working with Campaign for School Equity to include Latino students.