Let’s continue to listen to young people

Student organizing on gun violence is blazing an important trail for education

OVER THE PAST month, we have seen an important dialogue play out in local and national media as student leaders confront the traumatic issue of gun violence with courage and poise. Their efforts should be applauded and supported, and as we lift up students’ voices, we cannot overlook the communities who experience gun violence on a regular basis.

As the young people organizing and attending Saturday’s marches so impressively articulated, communities of color have long been disproportionately affected by gun violence. They made it a point to ensure often unheard voices shared the microphone. Educators, business, community leaders and elected officials should follow their examples and work to listen to and support all students as we continue to grapple with these issues – especially those students who have traditionally been left out of such public conversations.

Youth groups around New England have been organizing to reduce gun violence in their communities for quite some time. In New London, Connecticut, Hearing Youth Voices participated in the recent national school walkout, while also calling attention to nationwide efforts people of color have led, and the frustrations they’ve faced in addressing the intersections of race, violence, and injustice.

In addition to advocating for gun reform in Rhode Island, Providence Student Union is also urging adults to address joblessness and poverty as the roots of the gun violence affecting them on a daily basis. And here in Boston, young people from the Boston Student Advisory Council recently met with Parkland students to discuss what gun violence looks like in each of their communities.

As we listen to all students’ voices and support them, we need to think about the ways our education system can reflect their needs and interests to make them feel safe, heard, and respected.

We must introduce curriculum that is more culturally relevant for students of color. Too often, the material young people learn in class does not reflect their histories or celebrate their culture in a way that supports motivation and engagement in school. Educators can look to student groups like Providence Student Union, which led a successful campaign to implement an ethnic studies course into the city’s public school system. In Boston, Sociedad Latina provides direct training and research to educators around cultural proficiency, and Hyde Square Task Force is working to increase culturally relevant art opportunities for Boston Public Schools students.

Second, rather than relying on exclusionary and outdated disciplinary systems that lead to disproportionate suspensions for students of color, schools should embrace restorative justice tactics as a means of resolving conflict. A recent study found that Chicago Public Schools saw student test scores and attendance rise when the district reduced its suspensions. Efforts to keep students engaged in class and out of the school-to-prison pipeline are taking place here in Massachusetts. Young people at Holyoke High School are leading this work as part of the Pa’lante Restorative Justice program, and last year they held youth-designed workshops to train education professionals in student-centered conflict resolution approaches that create safer and more connected communities in schools.

Lastly, if we truly want our students to contribute to their communities as informed citizens, don’t they need an understanding of the powerful, confounding issues related to race, racism, and racial equity – and what to do about them? Our educational standards are developed to align with relevant challenges and opportunities of our time. Surely, wrestling and leading efforts to dismantle the remaining, persistent and insidious racist structures of our society could make this list.

At the Met High School in Providence, students have engaged in deep dives into the topics of institutional racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. In this way they are exercising the muscles they will need as future leaders. Why wouldn’t we want these kinds of capacities to define a prepared citizen and value their attention in educational settings and systems?

We become better educators by learning from our students, and we’re taking another step with this work at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to think about how we all can create an education system that more equitably serves low-income youth and youth of color.

Meet the Author

Nick Donohue

President & CEO, Nellie Mae Education Foundation
But that will not be possible without the collaboration of students, families, educators, and community organizations across New England who have been carrying out these efforts for years. As we work to ensure all young people feel safe, respected, and heard in their schools and communities, it is imperative that we follow the examples our students have set over the last month to ensure that all young people have a chance to participate and be heard in these conversations – especially those who have been traditionally left out of them.

Nick Donohue is president & CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the largest philanthropic organization in New England focused exclusively on education.