Student activists speak: ‘This is a part of us now’

LOS ANGELES — Today’s student activists are the same kids they were before gun violence struck their schools.

“We’ve always been this way,” says David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland, Fla., mass shooting. “You’re just listening now.”

And so on Thursday morning, in a ballroom on the campus of the University of Southern California, some 350 education journalists listened. On stage were four student activists: Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, a classmate at Parkland’s Stoneman Douglas High School; Alex King of Chicago’s North Parkland College Prep High School; and Jackson Mittleman of Newtown, Conn., High School. Their message: After seeing the effects of gun violence — in their schools and in their communities — the four students said they won’t be silent.

Photo credit: James Minichello with Education Writers Association.

“This is a part of us now,” Mittleman said. “This is our lives.”

The students recounted the tragic events that turned them into student-activists.

Gonzalez — who, like Hogg, has become a face of the school safety debate in the months after the Feb. 14 Parkland shootings — talked about being in an Advanced Placement government class that morning. The topic: special interest groups such as the National Rifle Association.

Mittleman was in a music room in Newtown’s intermediate school on Dec. 14, 2012, preparing for orchestra rehearsal when school officials ordered a lockdown. During the four-hour lockdown, he was unaware of the massacre that had unfolded a mile away, at Sandy Hook elementary school. When a security guard and police officer opened the door to the orchestra room, students panicked, because they thought their room was under attack.

King’s 16-year-old nephew died in a shooting about a year ago. Soon after, he joined a student group that reaches out to classmates who have lost loved ones to gun violence, with cards and gift bags of candies. The group has made 160 “condolence runs” in the past year.

“We don’t have school shootings,” he said. “We have daily shootings.”

Following up on recent rallies — such as the international student-led March for Our Lives demonstrations of March 24 — the students said they are planning a series of summer events. The first will be held on June 15 in Chicago.

The students said they will continue to drive the discussion beyond schools, to reflect attacks such as the October mass shootings at a Las Vegas country music festival. “It’s a universal conversation,” Gonzalez said.

Said Hogg, “We need to expand our platform to everybody, because everybody is affected by this.”

Two subsequent events placed the students’ remarks into stark context.

Shortly after Thursday morning’s panel discussion, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos held a closed-door meeting with other shooting survivors, teachers and schools safety experts. (DeVos had been invited to speak at the EWA seminar, but declined.)

And on Friday morning, less than 24 hours after the panel discussion, 10 people died in a shooting at a Texas high school.

As Hogg said Thursday morning: “What keeps me up at night is thinking that there is somebody alive right now that will not be alive at this time tomorrow, and has never even thought about gun violence.”

(More about the student panel from Madeline Will of Education Week.)

Perspectives on ESSA

Now that states have a leading role under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, what happens next?

North Dakota state schools superintendent Kirsten Baesler said her state turned in its ESSA plan as quickly as possible, to get out from under the constraints of the old federal No Child Left Behind law. She says ESSA will usher in a new era of accountability in North Dakota’s high schools — focused on college- and career-readiness, rather than rote memorization. Baesler, a Republican first elected to the nonpartisan post in 2012, believes the states will lose their new-found autonomy if they don’t get ESSA compliance right.

Color Michael Petrilli of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute as a skeptic. For all the talk of restoring power to the states, he dismissed ESSA as mostly a “nothingburger.” Pantomiming the rubber-stamping of paperwork, he said the feds have done little to push back on states’ ESSA plans, to Baesler’s chagrin.

The feds approved Idaho’s plan in March, several months after requesting some revisions. But the feds wound up approving a controversial piece of the Idaho plan, a multitiered “dashboard” that measures school performance. As Petrilli noted, 40 other states followed the feds’ recommendation to use a single accountability metric — such as a letter grade or numeric score.

One big ESSA component won’t kick in for a couple of years, as states are required to submit per-pupil spending reports for districts and schools. Most states will begin turning in these numbers for 2018-19.

Every state will do this differently. They can submit more detailed line items, outlining spending on special education or transportation. But the data should kickstart a discussion about the connections between spending and student outcomes, said Marguerite Roza, a school finance expert from Georgetown University, who has testified before a legislative committee working on a rewrite of Idaho’s school funding formula.

‘We had to remediate remediation’

Another recurring theme from the week was college remediation — the costly non-credit math and English courses many first-year students must take before they can take classes for credit.

During a panel discussion on college affordability, University of Michigan professor Susan Dynarski said the non-credit classes hit low-income students hard, since they can burn through their federal Pell grant awards before they can make headway toward a degree. The public policy, economics and education professor laid some of the blame on the academic community: Schools sometimes overassign students to remedial classes, she said, under pressure from faculty.

Idaho’s community colleges have been revamping their approach to remediation, in an attempt to move students into for-credit courses more quickly. Meanwhile, the California State University system has taken an aggressive approach, and will eliminate the classes entirely this year.

About 25,000 students a year were required to take remedial classes across the system’s 23 campuses. Many of these students — including first-generation students or students of color — would eventually drift away from the system.

“We had to remediate remediation,” said California State University Chancellor Tim White, a former University of Idaho president. “It was immoral.”

Impact of immigration policy changes on undocumented students

Another hot topic from last week was the wake of immigration raids — and how more undocumented students are skipping school and parents are avoiding school involvement because they fear deportation.

“This is very real,” said Ana Ponce, the chief executive officer of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy. “Kids cannot concentrate and sometimes as educators we underestimate the impact.”

Ponce is worried that some cities and districts across the country are creating a school-to-deportation pipeline.

“The question is — will administrators with privacy information turn their students in?” Ponce said.

Elizabeth Aguilera — the executive director of Migratory Notes, a weekly newsletter focused on immigration issues — discussed the issue of reporting stories about immigrants.

“Sometimes when you’re just trying to get the story, we lose some of the humanity in it and some of that comes through in the writing,” Aguilera said.

Idaho Education News journalists Kevin Richert and Andrew Reed spent three days in Los Angeles to attend the Education Writers Association’s national seminar. Reed attended under an EWA scholarship and Richert’s attendance was support by his EWA fellowship.


Kevin Richert and Andrew Reed

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