Extracurricular activism

Back to school with the Providence Student Union
By PHILIP EIL  |  August 28, 2013

 PSU_0830_top.jpg
STRIVING TO THRIVE The Providence Student Union on their first State House Day on August 14. [Photos by Natalja Kent]

How you feel about the Providence Student Union will likely depend on how you feel about public education in America. And race in America. And income inequality. And acts of political theater. And the word “union.” And the word “organizer.” And the use of standardized tests in public schools as a requirement for graduation. And the question of whether citizens under age 18 deserve an equal, enduring voice in the political arena.

Because this group of local teens who seek to “build the collective power of high school students across Providence to ensure youth have a real voice in decisions affecting their education” touch upon all these issues in one way or another, it’s no surprise to see the range of reactions they’ve received.

At one end of the spectrum is former Assistant US Secretary of Education, NYU professor, and high-profile education commentator Diane Ravitch, who has written that the PSU is a “national exemplar of brilliant, media-worthy civil dissent” whose members represent “the best of American youth. . . independent, creative, active, fearless.” Citing actions like the PSU’s “zombie march” to the Rhode Island Department of Education protesting the use of standardized tests as graduation requirements or their event last spring when they arranged for a group of local adults to take mock-ups of those same standardized tests (most of the adults failed), Ravitch has proudly described her donations to the PSU on her blog and encouraged readers to follow suit. “They are what we hope for our nation in the future,” she wrote. “Help them thrive.”

Meanwhile, that same group has enraged at least one conservative commentator closer to home. “In reality. . . the PSU is not just a rabble of bratty and dim-witted high school students who find it wise to continue to shepherd unqualified students toward college campuses,” wrote GoLocalProv “MINDSETTER™” Travis Rowley in March. “Worse, they’re being manipulated and encouraged by professional political agitators who are aligned and associated with major players of the Rhode Island Left — the ACLU, the teachers unions, elected Democrats, and RIFuture.org.”

Since it’s likely that you’ll fall somewhere between Ravitch and Rowley on what we’ll call the “PSU Spectrum,” we thought it would be useful to help you clarify those feelings. Because, while it’s not always comfortable hopping into the mosh pit of administrators, teachers, politicos, parents, and students that is the current debate over education in America, as thousands of high schoolers across the state file back into classrooms this week, we’re convinced that the Providence Student Union merits a closer look.

The group has established themselves in recent years as key players in the education conversation by virtue of their tenacious visibility, if nothing else. In April, when Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah A. Gist delivered her “State of Education” address to a joint session of the RI House and Senate, members of the PSU were on the steps of the State House delivering a tandem “State of the Student” rebuttal that bemoaned a lack of arts and technology electives and described cockroach and rat sightings at their schools. This summer, PSU students marched into RIDE’s office in Providence carrying an oversized, unsigned $500,000 check that they said represented the amount of money, based off US Census Bureau statistics, they will lose over a 50-year career if they’re denied a high school diploma due to Rhode Island’s current standardized testing regulations. When Gist didn’t immediately greet them, the group sat in the lobby of her office for over an hour and a half — a “sit-in” as some described it — and waited for her to appear. (She eventually did, and scheduled a meeting with students later in the week.)

And then there was this past Sunday afternoon, when PSU members showed up at the RI Board of Education’s retreat at Rhode Island College to stage a “quiet-in” at an info session on high school graduation requirements. Some wore black tape over their mouths; others carried signs that read “I AM MORE THAN A TEST SCORE,” “STUDENTS ARE EXPERTS TOO!” and “WE ASKED TO BE ON THE PANEL, NO ONE ANSWERED.”

Getting involved

The Providence Student Union was established in the spring of 2010 with the help of two Brown University undergrads: Aaron Regunberg (a Chicago native, now 23 years old) and Zack Mezera (from northern Florida, now 22). Mezera and Regunberg were taking part in a program called “Winter Break Projects,” run by Brown’s Swearer Center for Public Service that offered students a closer look at the Rhode Island education system. One afternoon, they dropped in at Hope High to observe teachers’ common planning time. The session quickly became interactive, though, when teachers “poured out their souls,” Mezera says, about upcoming schedule changes that would whittle down their time with students and cut back on opportunities for special projects. Many of the students they met outside the school in the following weeks echoed their teachers’ frustration.

After asking around town about the propriety of becoming actively involved in the issue, the two friends eventually swung into action, passing out flyers at Hope and inviting students to gather outside of school to discuss the situation. On the day of the first meeting, around 45 students showed up and walked with Mezera and Regunberg to Brown’s campus for a meeting. When somebody asked what the group’s name was, Regunberg says, a Hope student tossed out the words “Hope United.” The name stuck.

The campaign that grew out of that first meeting eventually culminated in a choreographed walkout, where hundreds of students flooded out of Hope High in the middle of the day, marching down to the Providence School Department offices on Westminster Street, and then to City Hall, in the hope of halting the schedule changes. PSU members were eventually able to meet with Mayor Angel Taveras and, thanks to both a lawsuit filed on their behalf by a local law firm and lobbying by Hope High staff, the proposed schedule changes were later partially repealed.

Perhaps more importantly, though, students got a taste of activism and organizing. “After that campaign came to a close, some of the leaders of the [student] group were like, ‘This was cool!’ ” Regunberg says.

Fast-forward to this fall, when PSU is poised to run chapters at five separate Providence schools: Central, Classical, Hope, Mount Pleasant, and Alvarez. Their organizing model has become more practiced, more polished. Participating students — around 40 to 50 between all chapters will attend meetings regularly enough to earn the title “members,” Regunberg says — will meet after school once a week to talk about school-specific issues and potential campaigns. In the past, for example, Hope United students have successfully lobbied and worked to get a salad bar installed alongside other daily offerings in their cafeteria. Hope students have also worked, with cooperation from school administrators, to lay the groundwork for a “student jury” program that offers more thoughtful, “restorative justice”-based responses to disciplinary cases.

Aside from school-specific meetings, PSU members will also gather as a citywide group every week. While these meetings, like the school-specific meetings, are facilitated by Mezera or Regunberg, decisions about the group’s direction are reached based an “almost Occupy-level” democratic process, Mezera says.

So who are these students?

They are students with aspirations to become aerospace engineers, surgeons, and elementary school teachers; students who point excitedly to similar organizations taking root in Chicago; Portland, Oregon; and Newark, New Jersey. They’re people like Tim Shea, a 17-year-old rising senior at Classical who says, “Towards the end of the recession, in the last few years, there’s been so many negative effects on public education around the country that people are starting to really speak up about it — especially students.”

There’s Priscilla Rivera, a 17-year-old aspiring writer at Hope who says PSU provides “a student voice.” As she describes it, the PSU’s model is simple: students go to meetings with Regunberg or Mezera, they talk about the things at their school that they want to change, and then “we work together to change it.”

Here, it’s worth pointing out that Mezera and Regunberg are not political novices. Both have worked on Barack Obama presidential campaigns, and Regunberg has worked on two local campaigns as East Side field director for Angel Taveras’s successful run for Providence Mayor in 2010, and for Gayle Goldin’s successful state senate run in 2012.

While the two are adamant that their past political affiliations and activity are entirely separate from their PSU work, the situation still begs the question: where, exactly, do their ideas end, and where do the students’ ideas begin?

“This is the question of what an ‘organizer’ is, which is really difficult to figure out,” Mezera says. “Because certainly directing is not where you want to be. But also the work wouldn’t be happening if you weren’t there.”

For explanation, he points to the PSU’s logo: a megaphone formed by the letters “PSU.”

“I want to be there to help students refine and amplify their concerns. But I don’t want to be creating those concerns,” he says.

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