Urbana social justice class shares findings with administrators

CHAMPAIGN — Urbana High School isn't the only high school to face issues such as a lack of racial diversity among its faculty members or having a disproportionate number of African-American students receiving disciplinary referrals.

But at Urbana, students who took a social justice class last semester not only identified these issues, but also carefully studied them and then gave school district administrators specific recommendations for how to change them.

The students, their teacher and principal and several people from the University of Illinois shared their experiences Thursday. They were the keynote speakers at the Chancellor's Academy at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign.

The academy is a weeklong professional development program put on by the Center for Education in Small Urban Communities, along with teacher and district leaders from the Champaign and Urbana school districts.

The students and the adults supporting them told attendees how the class was structured — in both learning about social justice and doing research about their school — and what they learned in the process.

They first started by learning about social justice in general and about things like identity, looking at who has the power in society and at who is marginalized. They learned specific definitions associated with these ideas.

"I wanted students to be equipped with the scholarly vocabulary for what they already know," social justice teacher Rachel Moyer said.

Then, they delved into the specifics of their own school.

Topics were sometimes "touchy" and "edgy," Moyer said, and required some bravery.

Their class used Youth Participatory Action Research to drive what they would work on during the semester. That's when students, rather than a teacher, decide what they want to learn and how, and then learn it by collaborating with the teacher, said Urbana junior Ben Lambeth.

"It takes the power from the teacher and gives it to the students," he said.

The students wrote autobiographies about their own experiences with these topics. They also worked with interim Principal Joe Wiemelt and Anjale Welton, assistant professor of education policy, organization and leadership at the UI's College of Education to co-author an article for The Social Justice Leader.

They decided to focus on issues within their school and did both quantitative and qualitative research on several specific issues. Those included racial diversity of the school's staff, the underrepresentation of students of color in honors classes and their overrepresentation when receiving disciplinary referrals and in enforcement of the school's dress code.

The class's diversity reflects the schools, so its 32 students were about 40 percent white, 40 percent black, 10 percent Latino and 10 percent other. Moyer said it was important to her that the class reflect the student body as a whole, so some students joined after she or others asked them to consider it.

The students also answered questions from those attending, saying they liked the chance to interact with each other and understand their peers' learning styles better.

It helped them think about their career choices.

Junior Karla Altamirano said she wants to be a lawyer, and the class helped her understand how to be an activist.

"It's helped me ... gain confidence," she said.

As far as Thursday's speech went, the students said they also enjoyed making contact with local teachers and others who attended their presentation. They're hoping to teach others about social justice and student-led research.

They're so passionate because they like knowing they have a voice and that their voice matters, sophomore Aqeedah Byndum said.

Lambeth said he likes spreading the word about the ideas because "improving people's lives is very important to me."

Evangeline Pianfetti, who is an adjunct faculty member and director of emergent technologies for the Center for Education in Small Urban Communities, said the students were asked to be the academy's keynote speakers as a way to incorporate student perspective into this year's academy. They helped show what theory looks like when it's put into practice, she said.

"It was all about the student voices," Pianfetti said.

Welton said the class is tackling issues that affect schools across the nation, and not everyone wants to talk about them.

"I give credit to Urbana to give students space to do it," Welton said.

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