Policy change is about building a better future.
As I wrapped up my first year of teaching last year, I wanted to grow as an educator and leader. I was placed with EdNC to expand my skills as a writer, researcher, and policy analyst through my fellowship with the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation. A professional development opportunity along the way, SummerSTEM 2015 at the SAS Institute, led to the creation of a public policy boot camp for students, designed by teachers.
Before holding our first student boot camp at the Institute for Emerging Issues, I drafted what I would say to my AP English Language & Composition students about the importance of public policy. I wanted them to understand the importance of community collaboration, that policy is everywhere, and it’s all connected.
The day kicked off with Anita Brown-Graham of IEI, asking “What is a public problem?” Nancy Rose of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research led the students through the Center’s public policy boot camp. Students then engaged with experts around four issues: education, health care, the environment, and the economy. After lunch, students toured the Hunt Library, learned about using data, attended a storytelling training, and discussed authentic leadership. Raj Narayan of the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology, and Science closed the day by asking students to embrace change.
Students live public policy every day during lunch trips to Cookout. The roads they drive are crumbling on New Bern Avenue. Cafeterias are not large enough to hold the student body so the school creates local policies to allow students to go off campus for lunch. The worker at the window makes lower wages than their teacher. Often students choose foods that do not provide them with the nutrition they need to learn.
I wanted to share with students my own passions for policy, specifically education policy, and the importance for students to find their peeves, their passions, and let that guide their research and work.
However, over lunch I realized my students weren’t ready to discuss the values or systemic issues facing North Carolina. The students were too passionate about what happens everyday in their own classrooms, among their peers, in their school.
All other issues and concerns were irrelevant to them if the needs of their classmates were not being met.
Students shared concerns for their peers placed in standard courses of English and wanted to know why they were not afforded the same privilege and opportunity as their AP class. Students raised eyebrows at course equity, racial equity. Hands flew to comment on the lack of motivation and participation on their own part as a student body. Facts foamed to the surface about the low tide of their generation’s involvement in voter and civic engagement: reflective of the low voter turnout in student government elections. The students felt safe to participate in this heated dialogue that criticized themselves as a student body as well as the makers of education policy.
Brown-Graham with the Institute for Emerging Issues asked students, “How many of you aspire to work in manufacturing?” Not a single hand went up. She then shared with students, “Advanced manufacturing is creating the highest quality jobs across North Carolina. It is time to reframe the jobs debate.” This is an issue that the left, right, Gov. McCrory, and all can agree on.
If teachers do not understand the role of advanced manufacturing in our economy, how can they share the future of this job market with their students? If their students are not even prepared or knowledgeable of an existing need for manufacturing, where does that leave the state of North Carolina? This is just one of many issues we touched on during the boot camp.
Teachers need the money and time for authentic, rich professional development, like SummerSTEM, because our students deserve teachers with a vision for their future. Our state needs teachers prepared to create a workforce that meets the needs of a growing population and economy.
Students have more wisdom to impart on each other than I could begin to impress as an educator. Adults and students left the boot camp excited, moved, irritated, and questioning…
Why do policy experts consult policy experts on these decisions?
Where is the voice of those affected the most — the students?
For our first boot camp, 120 students met with over 11 policy and community organizations. 120 students had a safe place to share their vision for our state. It’s a start.
Many thanks to my school, the Institute for Emerging Issues, EdNC, North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, North Carolina Community Development Initiative, North Carolina Conservation Network, AJ Fletcher Foundation, Happy + Hale, The Hunt Library, the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, and The Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology, and Science.