Ironically, when it comes to public school reform, just about everybody has had their say — policymakers, pundits, even athletes — except for the students themselves. But a change is coming: There is a growing local movement to enlist students as expert witnesses and leaders in the fight for their own academic and political survival. Among the best of these efforts is the Youth Organizing Communities, based in East L.A. and run by Maria Brenes, an alum of UC Berkeley and Harvard’s graduate education school.
The group, a campaign of the Eastside community-organizing outfit Inner City Struggle (www.innercitystruggle.org), sponsors an activist club called United Students at Garfield and Roosevelt high schools. United Students has about 100 members who train as student organizers and routinely call their respective administrations on the carpet about everything from the high rate of dropouts to the lack of college access to the over-recruitment of the largely poor and minority population by the military. In three years the organization has scored some victories — getting more counselors hired, instituting ethnic-studies courses at Roosevelt and eliminating the tardy room. Brenes, who’s already logged nearly 10 years in the cause of educational and social justice, says it’s just the beginning. As a teen going to high school in the U.S., Brenes — the American-born daughter of parents who lived in Mexico but worked here — wound up fighting for the right to get her diploma as anti-immigrant sentiment of the early ’90s built into what became Proposition 187. “Education is more than a civil right, it’s a human right,” says Brenes, who counts Angela Davis and Malcolm X among her heroes. “These students may not see the fruits of their labor in their time at school. But this is their legacy.”