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FROM READERS: Classmates start Students' Say group to advocate for teen voices

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 | 4:37 p.m. CST; updated 5:08 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Jilly Dos Santos, Emily Franke and Maddy Mueller are sophomores at Rock Bridge High School. The three students founded the group Students' Say with other classmates in response to Columbia Public Schools' proposal to change start times.

Students’ Say mission statement: “Students’ Say is an organization that allows Columbia Public Schools’ high school students to have a say in district-wide decisions. We advocate for all CPS students, families and faculty, with a focus on our high schools. Our organization strives to create and strengthen bonds between CPS high schools and engage students in a democratic process that will directly affect them.” 

Today you can find an organization to represent anyone’s voice. The most obvious are the Republican and Democratic parties, but there are also lesser known community clubs, such as the Dermatologist Interest Group at Mizzou. Everyone from Democrats to dermatologists have representation — but who is missing?

Students. In our society, students, especially those in high school, are expected to be young adults, fully capable of handling life like an adult and completely responsible for our actions. Yet we are often treated like incapable children at the same time. We are told we can do anything, so long as we have proper adult supervision. And therein lies the problem.

By sending students mixed signals, administrators fail to provide a clear message of how we as teenagers should act and participate in society. How can they tell us that they trust us and accept us as responsible young adults if they don’t give us privileges like open lunch or AUT, a study hall available to juniors and seniors where they can leave school with parent permission?

When our freedoms are in limbo, we are unable to get the practice we need acting and thinking like adults. For years students have had a very limited, if not nonexistent, say in the way the district operates. But with the many decisions to be made accompanying the opening of Battle High School, students across the district are finally taking a stand and offering their input.

A student advocacy group isn’t a new idea. There are existing school clubs that advocate for high schoolers to voice their opinions and make changes, but they are school-specific. For instance, if Student Coalition, a Rock Bridge club, decided to take on a district policy, there would likely be little input from Hickman students on the matter. The lack of a connection between student bodies and advocacy groups in the district means unequal representation from different schools. In addition, the existing student advocacy groups are run not entirely by the students but with supervision from faculty. Students’ Say is different.

We were founded after we heard from our teachers that the way it currently stood, high school was likely to start at 7:20 a.m. next year. This caused some major dissent in the student body, and soon the question wasn’t would someone do something, but when and who it would be. Sophomore Jilly Dos Santos decided the who would be her and the when would be now. She created a Twitter account and Facebook group to spread the word of early start times — and assert the fact that students could have a say. With a newly recruited team of RBHS sophomores Emily Franke, Kristen Tarr, Brett Stover and Maddy Mueller, our organization exploded.

Because we are teens, we use social media and the Internet for everything. We’ve emailed every teacher at Rock Bridge and dozens at Hickman High and West and Jeff Jr. High, gathering as many opinions as possible on our issues. Our Facebook group grew to nearly 500 in the first day alone, with our Twitter followers ranging from CPS faculty and parents to a national “start schools later” organization. The reception toward us has been unimaginable. What began as the idea of a high school girl grew into an organization featured on the news, and a group of students who are often commended in class or in the hallways by teachers.

The support from our schools has been amazing, and it speaks to what they know we can accomplish, on our own, as young adults. At first it was difficult to get some students to take us seriously, but the support and publicity from our teachers got kids talking and tweeting about what they believed in.

The fact of the matter is that students care, they just don’t always think they can express themselves and be heard. We want to show our community that we’re thoughtful and that we’ve got something to say, but the fear of being ignored or ridiculed can stop us in our tracks.

That’s why an organization like Students’ Say is so important. We’re not just a Rock Bridge club. We have our Hickman and Battle teams, consisting of HHS sophomores Wenzer Qin, Kadie Elmore, Angela Lim, Bolor Jagdagdorj, and junior Eli Byerly-Duke, and future BHS juniors Veronica Fuhlage, AJ Fuchs, Dustin Duff, and Adil Hamadto. We’ve been able to work out the differences between our schools' cultures and policies, which has led us to what we believe to be the best proposals for our schools because they most accurately reflect the needs of the students. We have been taking ideas from everyone: from juniors and seniors to elementary school teachers and our own administrators. It can sometimes be challenging to work between school lines when we are unfamiliar with the policies of the other schools, but despite this, the group effort so far has been quite successful.

Right now we are working on advocating for personalized open lunch policies — we believe that a universal proposal encompassing all high schools would not be fair and may be hard to enforce depending on the culture of the school in question. After meeting with our HHS, RBHS, and BHS students, we came to the conclusion that the best idea would be to meet each school’s needs on an individual basis. If this means sacrificing some degree of uniformity between the schools, then that’s okay. For more specific details, check out our Twitter feed, @Students_Say_. We haven’t forgotten about start times either and are hoping to work with the board to secure a high school start time of no earlier than 7:50 a.m. and no later than 8:30 a.m.

Going forward, we’re working with a national student-run organization, Student Voice, that advocates for student involvement in educational policy-making. There’s a national summit in New York City this April that we’re raising money to attend, and with the help of local businesses, we can only imagine the impact attending this conference could have. The knowledge we gain there can only strengthen the student movement and participation in local democracy.

We hope that students and any CPS faculty or family member knows that we want them to have, and express, an opinion — even if it goes against what we personally think is best. For Students’ Say, we’ll know we’ve done our job right when our voice isn’t that of 14 high school students, but rather the whole Columbia Public Schools student body. Our Facebook group is always open, and since most of us are 16 years old, we’re always checking Twitter, so get your opinion out there! Represent your classmates, and let Columbia hear the students’ say.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising Editor Joy Mayer.


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