Pittsburgh teenagers push to present, ratify student bill of rights

After document is approved, it will be sent to school board

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The TeenBloc students of A+ Schools today expect to reach their goal of student ratification of a proposed student bill of rights for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

TeenBloc, which kicked off its campaign with a rally three weeks ago, set a goal of 25 percent of students in grades 9-12 -- about 1,600 -- voting for the bill, which includes 10 rights, such as equitable academic resources and positive school disciplinary policies.

That's their first step in what they hope ultimately will be approved by the school board.

Their rally three weeks ago and their campaign are the most visible results of recent efforts to increase the power of student voices.

A+ Schools, an education advocacy group, as well as three other groups -- Hill District Consensus Group, Amachi Pittsburgh and Community Empowerment Association -- are sharing $280,000 from the Heinz Endowments aimed at helping youth organize for school change.

"This is the notion that we could provide resources to community-based organizations to engage young people as agents of change in their schools and in the larger school district in Pittsburgh in particular," said Melanie Brown, education program officer at the Heinz Endowments.

"I think oftentimes young people growing up don't understand how they can be involved in a community."

While she said there have been such movements elsewhere in the country, Ms. Brown said this "definitely is an innovative strategy for Pittsburgh."

The Heinz funding began with spending $80,000 to test the viability of the strategy, resulting in a report in September 2012 that showed young people had an interest in being part of the education discussion but needed to develop the skills to do so.

Through the $280,000 grant, adults working with youth and some teens are getting training from SOUL -- School of Unity & Liberation -- based in Oakland, Calif.

Angelique Gonzales, executive director of SOUL, said her organization tries to "bring up the next generation of social movement leadership."

"We know that historically it's been young people on the front lines of struggles for social change," she said.

Pam Little-Poole, program manager for youth programs at A+ Schools, said TeenBloc has existed for more than four years and called the training a "perfect match" for the conversations students were having about their school concerns.

She said the training provides a framework and helps them think strategically.

"It helps give students clear language about the work they are embarking on, base building and what that means if one is an organizer," she said.

TeenBloc member Amma Ababio, a junior at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School and a Highland Park resident, said SOUL training helped TeenBloc to move forward with developing the bill of rights and a campaign for it.

Amma received SOUL training in Pittsburgh, where she learned about successful civil rights and other campaigns as well as how to analyze power and see all of the stakeholders.

"One of the best things I heard was no one is forever your ally or your enemy," she said.

As part of the campaign, Amma and two other TeenBloc members have been meeting with Allderdice students in homerooms and in the cafeteria to explain the bill and get their votes.

The next step for the TeenBloc students will be trying to get an opportunity to present their ideas to the school board and then seek a school board vote.

At Amachi Pittsburgh, which helps children whose parents are incarcerated, Anna Hollis, executive director, said the training has been "awesome."

"We were just kinda figuring it out as we went along on our own. It was an opportunity for us to learn how to approach this type of work in the most effective way," she said.

Amachi launched a student ambassadors program in 2010 that has 10 to 15 high school students. The work began with focus groups aimed at hearing the teens' concerns.

She hopes the students will be able to develop resources and conduct workshops that would help school faculty and administrators understand their challenges.

She said students also want to reach out to younger students.

Bonnie Young Laing, co-director of the Hill District Consensus Group, said the group hadn't done direct engagement with youth prior to receiving the grant.

Now the group plans to work with high school youth from its schools or neighborhood, eventually getting to eighth-graders as well.

"One of the things we learned from SOUL is youth really need to understand the fundamentals of the complex issues that are surrounding them. So we have been doing some work first identifying youth who are even interested in making change, which is a little more difficult than one might imagine."

She said the group hopes to get 35 to 50 youths involved in issues around school change. Currently, four high school students work six hours a week as organizers.

Brian Brown, youth organizing coordinator for the consensus group who works with the youths, said involving youth has been challenging because students attend a wide variety of schools or don't have time because of jobs, sports and other activities.

He said the four are working on issues in their own schools, including one who started a black student union.

Rashad Byrdsong, founder of the Community Empowerment Association, which provides services in the East End and McKeesport, said his group has been working with youth for 20 years.

He said youth often feel powerless and voiceless, but the efforts supported by the SOUL training, he said, would "give students their own voice."

Ms. Brown sees the grants as having impacts on individuals, schools and the larger society.

At the rally kicking off the TeenBloc campaign, Ms. Brown said she saw students who were vocal but not adversarial.

"The young people are excited to make their schools better places. They see where some students are succeeding and others aren't. We see students who are not afraid to speak up, who understand political processes," Ms. Brown said.

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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