Amy Fan, chair of the Outreach Committee, was recently interviewed by a representative from HISD who wished to remain anonymous. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation. The article on the HISD site can be found here.
Who are the founding members and are they all from CVHS?
At the beginning, we had a wide variety of students who were sophomores, juniors, and seniors, from both public and private schools. However, by the time the Congress was actually founded and we had decided to focus on education, nearly half a year later, the seniors had gone on to college, and the people who had stayed on board were rising juniors and seniors from Bellaire, Carnegie, Lamar and Yates.
From the blog entries, it appears that this idea was born during the spring of your junior year. What made y’all decide to organize this now? Was there an issue of pressing urgency that someone felt really needed addressing or did the time just feel right? Why now, when you’re almost done with your time in HISD? Did creating a legacy that could benefit other students play a part in your decision(s)?
We were originally a group of students whom Zaakir had organized as part of his TPSP project at Carnegie. We were called Our Shared Future and talked about current events. However, as we met with city leaders from all over Houston who studied a wide variety of topics, our conversations would constantly lead back to education, since it was something we could all relate to,– we had all spent over 10 years in the same education system, experiencing elementary, middle and high schools, yet the only people with whom we could share our critiques were each other. We wanted to at least make an effort towards improving the district for the students.
Our hope is that the Student Congress will continue to serve as a vein for student input long after we graduate; in this way, HISD can make education more effective for future students by listening to their input and making changes according to the advice of those who are directly experiencing the education. The causes will change from year to year, but as long as the structure stays in place, students will continue to have their voices heard.
Whose idea was it initially and why is it so important to give students a voice in HISD’s operations?
Everyone– our conversations would organically spring towards school every time, and we felt like we were discussing something that we should have a stake in. Upon closer inspection, we found it ironic that in HISD’s “Declaration of Beliefs and Visions”, the role of students wasn’t mentioned–even once.
A Gallup poll last year showed that 76% of elementary school students feel engaged in their schools. This number drops to 61% in middle school, and 44% in high school. Incorporating the student voice is a vital aspect of making education less passive.
Whose blessing did you have to obtain before you could proceed with this endeavor?
From the beginning, we knew that as the youth, we would have to work twice as hard in order to gain anyone’s respect and get past any judgement from the adults. By the time we presented our idea to Juliet Stipeche, we had spent three mornings discussing our plans and debating over potential issues.
Additionally, we would like to thank the following people for listening to our ideas, supporting us, and offering their insights:
Dr. Stephen Klineberg
Sheriff Adrian Garcia
HISD Board Secretary Anna Eastman
HISD Board Trustee Michael Lunceford
You mentioned in the video that you didn’t want to complain; you wanted to provide the district with positive feedback as well. What are some of the things that you think still need attention in terms of making improvements and what things do you think are working well in the district?
I’ll admit it–most of our conversations started off extremely idealistic and were about building the “perfect” school. We also complained a fair amount about our current schools. However, as we heard about the realities of HISD, notably the literacy crisis, we realized that there were a lot more pressing issues to worry about. Many of us have our own personal stories, but we need to do more research in order to get to the root of the problem.
From a purely anecdotal experience, HISD is doing well in regards to keeping parents informed about district policies and allowing parents to express their ideas about how the district is doing. I like the Your Voice survey for gathering student input at the end of the year, but we want a more personal, ongoing mechanism for feedback. And that’s what the Student Congress is.
I noticed that you have emphasized the need to remain democratic and open to anyone, yet still honor the contributions of the folks who stay really active in the congress, such as elected student representatives or committee members. How do you plan to balance your service to those populations? What might that look like?
To clarify, the only elected positions are the Cabinet members. Any student in an HISD high school is free to join any committee and represent their school. What one accomplishes within the committee is completely up to them, and the ones who really work will naturally rise to the top. If there’s a specific cause that someone wants to work towards, then we encourage and expect them to put in the additional efforts.
Our idea is that the members will reap the rewards of what they sow and they can choose how much commitment they’re willing to put in. As the seniors graduate, the underclassmen will take their place and keep the Congress running.
Special thanks to the Outreach Committee for helping edit these responses.