Democracy in Action

A new voice for Providence students


One purpose of education is to equip young people with the skills to participate in our democracy throughout their lives, so it’s reasonable to expect that students must have opportunities at school to have their voices be heard on matters that affect them. While that may be sensible and desirable, in practice, it rarely happens. Students are regularly and systematically excluded from conversations and decision-making processes in their schools and communities about matters that affect them.

The Providence Student Union (PSU) intends to change that. PSU began at Hope High School in 2010 in response to faculty and student concerns about the school’s district-mandated shift away from a block schedule (in the spring of 2012, following appeals to the Rhode Island Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education and a lawsuit, the Providence Public Schools reinstated Hope’s block schedule). Zack Mezera and Aaron Regunberg, then both students at Brown University, became involved in the work of organizing students at Hope to raise their collective voices to protest the schedule change. Hope United, as the organized student collective became known, emerged as a powerful outlet for students who, along with faculty members, understood that the school’s block schedule provided a structure that allowed meaningful teaching and learning.

Though their efforts didn’t yield a victory on the schedule issue, Mezera, Regunberg and the students with whom they worked wanted to keep going at Hope. “We didn’t really know what we were doing,” remembers Mezera, “But we were carried forward by emotion and didn’t want to stop.” Hope United organized to create healthier, more palatable lunch options and raised awareness about the condition of the school, particularly the bathrooms. Most recently, Hope United students researched and won approval from Hope’s principal, Tamara Sterling, to implement a student jury as an alternative way to handle school discipline issues. The Hope High School student jury allows students to use peer mediation to settle disputes among themselves, rather than relying solely on teachers and administrators to settle discipline matters through punitive measures such as suspension (sounds a lot like democracy in action, right?). Mezera describes the conversation about the student jury at Hope as a collaborative and productive example of how student voice can lead to systemic changes.

As Hope United grew, the idea of a student union caught the attention of students and faculty members at other Providence high schools. By the spring of 2012, Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School and Central High School initiated student unions, which brought the PSU to life as a citywide organization. Mezara, now a senior at Brown, and Regunberg, a 2012 graduate, remain involved, raising funds to expand the work and connecting with AS220 to serve as the PSU’s fiscal sponsor. They formed an advisory board (of which I am a member) and created a statement of purpose, as follows: “The mission of the Providence Student Union is to build the power of students in Providence to ensure that students have a fair say in the decisions affecting their education.”

At Alvarez High School, in the Reservoir neighborhood, students are focusing on advocating for a later start time for their schools, offering research and evidence that a 30-minute schedule shift could yield meaningful results for student attendance and achievement. Regunberg says that though Alvarez United students feel passionately about this issue, they haven’t yet seen results.

Central High School students identified the Rhode Island graduation requirement policy, which stipulates that in addition to completing credits and fulfilling other graduation requirements, students must also demonstrate partial proficiency on the state standardized reading and mathematics NECAP tests. This policy (whatever you may think of it) carries a potentially devastating impact when it goes into effect for the graduating classes of 2014 and beyond.

Cauldierre McKay, a junior at Classical High School, joined my conversation with Mezera and Regunberg and explained that the NECAP requirement galvanized him to join PSU as a supporter and organizer. “We have got to detach graduation from the NECAPs,” said McKay. “If this had been in effect for the class of 2012, 70 percent of students in Providence would not have graduated, and that would be a disaster. As it is, we’re giving up learning time at Classical for NECAP prep because of this, and that’s happening in high schools all over this city.” McKay joined students from Central and elsewhere to speak out about the graduation policy at the Rhode Island Board of Regents’ October 2012 meeting, and is participating in “teachins’ and other events to raise awareness of the use of the NECAP to determine graduation.

As I chatted with McKay, Regunberg and Mezera, I was reminded that it’s all too easy for us, as adults, to make decisions about the welfare of young people without their direct input. Let’s take a moment to appreciate both the adults who are willing to change the way they conduct school business to include students in decision-making and the students who are willing to put their beliefs on the line. I have faith that they will be well equipped to join our democracy in action.