Teens from 23 WNY school districts to advocate for school reform during virtual forum

Teenage students sitting in a group.

With support from UB’s WNY Youth Alliance for Education, students to push for increased cultural diversity, LGBTQ inclusion and mental health resources

Release Date: June 15, 2021

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Portrait of Amanda Winkelsas.
“The experience for students is validating and fosters an idea of themselves as change agents, which ultimately will make for better, more equitable schools. ”
Amanda Winkelsas, assistant dean for outreach and community engagement in the UB Graduate School of Education

BUFFALO, N.Y. — More than 120 teenagers from across Western New York are calling for reform in the region’s education system from local superintendents, principals, school boards and teachers.

During a live presentation, the students — who developed their policy recommendations through the Western New York Youth Alliance for Education program — will challenge school leaders to craft policies that promote equity and inclusion by increasing cultural diversity among staff and curriculums, creating more inclusive environments for LGBTQ students, adding mental health resources, and improving student-teacher relationships.

The virtual presentation, which is open to the public, is scheduled for Wednesday, June 16, from 4:30-5:30 p.m. Guests may register online.

The Western New York Youth Alliance for Education, an initiative of the UB Graduate School of Education, is a program that brings together public school students in grades 7-12 to develop policy recommendations that improve equity in education. The initiative was created to give a voice to local teens who may feel powerless amid civil and political unrest.

“The experience for students is validating and fosters an idea of themselves as change agents, which ultimately will make for better, more equitable schools,” says program director Amanda Winkelsas, PhD, assistant dean for outreach and community engagement in the UB Graduate School of Education.

“They are the reason that I believe the future can be bright,” says Suzanne Rosenblith, PhD, dean of the UB Graduate School of Education. “It will take our collective efforts to ensure that their vision of what schools and society ought to look like become a reality.”

Guided by UB faculty and graduate student facilitators, teenagers from 23 school districts met virtually each month beginning in February to discuss desired policy changes in schools. The students ultimately decided on four areas for change:

  • Incorporating anti-racism into school policies and curriculums and hiring more teachers of color;
  • Promoting inclusion for LGBTQ students by removing gendered dress codes, adding gender neutral bathrooms, increasing LGBTQ representation in curriculums, and mandating the use of preferred names and pronouns;
  • Increasing resources for student mental health support and training teachers to advocate for mental health;
  • Improving student-teacher relationships through shared interest groups and mentorship programs.

Some students are already implementing these recommendations in their schools. Ava Brigham, a junior at Royalton-Harland High School in Middleport, won the approval of her superintendent to start Students for Tolerance Unity Diversity and Inclusion, a student club dedicated to addressing issues of diversity and inclusion.

“It’s inspiring that young people are energized around issues of racial justice and equity,” says Winkelsas. “The program helps them channel that energy, refine their communication, and leverages our power and connections to amplify their voices to local school leaders.”

Community partners of the Western New York Youth Alliance for Education include the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology, Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization, Buffalo Prep, Buffalo Public Schools, Community Action Organization of Western New York, Erie 1 BOCES­, Police Athletic League of Buffalo, and Western New York United Against Drugs and Alcohol Abuse.

The program will welcome a new cohort of students in the fall.

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