New London youth group competes for $50,000 award

New London – Hearing Youth Voices, a New London youth-led advocacy group that has fought and succeeded in effecting changes in the New London public school system, is a finalist for a $50,000 grant award honoring youth commitment to change in education.

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation, an education-focused philanthropic organization, announced that seven finalist from across New England are in the running for its first youth organizing award. The winner will be chosen by a public vote.

Hearing Youth Voices is the only Connecticut-based group represented among the finalists. The award honors an organization that has helped in some way to advance student-centered learning or redesigning education to meet the needs of all students.

“It’s pretty exciting. We’ve been trying to do a lot and it made us feel like we’ve accomplished something,” said Shineika Fareus, an organizer at Hearing Youth Voices and a senior at the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut.

Fareus, a native Haitian who lives in New London, was involved in the group’s “We Want to Graduate,” campaign which focused on tackling systemic obstacles to students, mostly minority students, graduating from New London High School.

The group determined some students were not graduating because of credits lost from absences and suspensions that in many cases could have been prevented. They found the school district was not clearly warning students of an impending credit loss. The end result of their campaign was a revision to the school’s attendance policy and potentially a higher graduation rate.

They also worked with a coalition of parent advocates, school staff, and school board members to create the district's first-ever restorative practices pilot project. Fareus is also now a voting member of the school board’s policy committee.

Hearing Youth Voices organized in 2012, following a research project that investigated youth experience in schools. The project was prompted by the release of the State Department of Education audit into the “Governance and Management” of the New London Public Schools – a report that to the dismay of youth had neglected to reach out for student input.

Twylah Greaves, a New London native and senior at the Marine Science Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut, said the group could use the award money to help gain wider participation through its outreach efforts.

“What it’s going to do is help the youth in the community,” said Greaves, who organizes workshops to inspire youth participation.

She said she personally knows people who have benefitted from the New London High School’s policy changes and is proud to have been a part of it.

“Having an opinion, doing the research…and having it change someone’s life is special. The process is inspiring and informative,” she said.

Laura Burfoot, with a decade of experience working with youth groups and serves as the group's administrative coordinator, said the community can help with a simple vote. She envisions money from the award will aid in transportation needs, food for meetings and allow for better stipends to the many youth who work with the organization.

“The value of the work they do is an important contribution to the community,” Burfoot said.

The group is composed of youth of color, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community and the core of their work focuses on issues of race and classism in the schools. Because of their own experiences, Burfoot said the youth bring an "intimate expertise" to their research.

Nick Donohue, president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, congratulated all of the finalist in a prepared statement, calling them “leaders in promoting student ownership and voice as part of school decision-making in New England."

The public can vote through Nov. 30 by texting the code 626734 to the number 22333 or by email at studentsatthecenterhub.org/award-nominees.

g.smith@theday.com

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