Real Talk, Real Issues, Real Action; A Youth-Led Dialogue with the OUSD Superintendent

“We live in an age when to be young and to be indifferent can be no longer synonymous. We must prepare for the coming hour. The claims of the Future are represented by suffering millions; and the Youth of a Nation are the trustees of Posterity”.–Benjamin Disraeli

“How do you succeed in a chaotic school?”

A high school student asked our homegrown superintendent, Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell.

Surprisingly, they got a real answer.  Not the usual talk about how we strive for great schools for every child, those lofty, tired, and empty platitudes that have very little relation to reality, but sure sound good.

This student got an actual answer that understood the reality that youth face in many of our schools, and the ways that we can try to work around systemic failures.  It was a rare discussion of OUSD policy and practice that was deeply grounded in real student experiences and the concerns youth have about the schools.

I hope we can get more of this and center our discussion on student experience rather than adult disagreements.

Forget what you think you know about youth, listen to them

For nearly two hours young people and superintendent had a real conversation, about the real issues facing our students and the real and practical solutions.  Oakland has a dysfunctional “debate” in the board meetings, which consists of mostly personal insults and folks talking past each.  It is a domination of politics and rhetoric over policy, program or student needs.

This night was all about students, and the more I listened the more impressed I was.

You have probably heard about teens today- disaffected, self-absorbed, over-sensitive… whatever.  It’s a bunch of garbage.

These youth had more solutions than the adults, and were willing to do more than just talk, they were willing to act and keep acting.  In fact, one of the critiques they gave us as organizers was that they wanted follow through, they didn’t just want a gripe session—they wanted input and action.  And they wanted to make the system better.  They also had real actionable ideas.

The real conditions in schools

Students were clear about what they wanted, and what they aren’t consistently getting.  Their answers had nothing to do with a governance model or the professional divide on public school sectors.  It was all about their lived experiences in schools.  There were common issues across both sectors and I think our youth will be able to come together for common answers.  Some key takeaways were;

Students needed more teachers that came from where they did, that understood and could relate to them

Students needed better curricular materials, and current textbooks

Students needed better teaching that focused not on memorization but thinking, and the real world skills they need to thrive

Students needed support and information, so that all youth had more equal chances to get into the best high school programs, and to know they were on track for graduation

And most generally, students needed more involvement and voice.

A call for greater student voice in schools

This is going to sound strange— but students want more involvement in schools and not less.  They want to sit on hiring panels and screen teachers, they want to sit in student support meetings and say what support students really need, they want to help with adoption of textbooks, so that the curriculum is relevant, they want to develop a better teacher profile that includes a sense of cultural competency, and overall they want to be active partners in making the schools better for themselves and other less privileged students.

Usually these “nice ideas” would be collected with a bunch of condescending and empty “thank yous” with the “ideas” dumped in the circular file (a.k.a. the garbage can) the second nobody was looking.   This felt different.

These young people wanted follow up, and we have a superintendent who is willing to give more than lip service to them.  They got a partnership and some concrete actions, and something that we will continue to cover as the year progresses.

The students decided to form two task forces, and work with the superintendent to pilot solutions.  First, students wanted to sit on hiring panels for teachers and, second, they wanted to help develop a more culturally competent teacher profile.  Real action that will matter for students and the superintendent agreed to work with them on this.

Next steps- the vote?

These young people have a better conversation and more concrete solutions than the adults seem to.

Which brings me to my big takeaway; these young people should get to vote for school board.

More to come on these task forces, our ongoing conversation with the superintendent, and also the push for a lower voting age in school board elections.

But for the first time in a long time, I watched our community come together around the schools, and felt hope.


Much appreciation to the youth who participated from All City Council, Energy Convertors, Latitude High, and to Director Hinton-Hodge, the Superintendent, and OUSD leadership, Charles Cole, Bennie Patterson, the Oakland Promise, and all the youth and adults who came together to make this event work


What do you think?

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