Ti'Juana Hardwell

Karl Rove Rally

In my lifetime I have been called many things, including intelligent and ambitious. In March, my local newspaper spotlighted me as one of three powerful emerging black leaders in my community. But it was not until just recently that I was labeled a member of "a guerilla group," a "professional grievance monger," and a "thug."

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Student Justice Denied?

Newspaper headlines routinely talk about the "achievement gap" in Wichita schools. The recent results from all those standardized tests you had to take last year show that minority students' test scores are far below those of white kids -- who themselves scored only a little higher than any random animal at the Wichita Zoo might.

So what's going on? As a generation, we certainly aren't any dumber than previous generations (look at the way they dress). To imply that recent test scores reflect a decline in intelligence would be false, and in light of the "achievement gap," straight-out racist. What we have here is not an example of us failing the school system.

The school system is failing us.

Sometimes I think it's the administrators themselves who need to be tested. It's not rocket science to understand that if students don't go to school, or aren't allowed to go because of unnecessary suspensions for days and weeks at a time, they won't learn and they won't do well on tests.

Yet school suspensions in Wichita have reached a crisis level. If you think I'm exaggerating, consider this: in the 2001-2002 school year, our district handed out 1,113 suspensions to children in grades kindergarten though third grade. Yes, there are always students with serious behavioral problems. But this many, and at this level? And shouldn't we also wonder if this is the best way to deal with even the worst behaving kids? Schools and teachers need to learn to deal with these students in a way that doesn't deny them their right to an education, especially at the elementary level when so many important fundamental skills are being learned. Don't suspend kids during the time they're supposed to be learning to read and be surprised later when they don't do well on standardized tests.

When you look at it this way, the achievement gap becomes simple to understand. In the 2001-2002 school year, minority students made up roughly 49% of the student population in Wichita schools, yet received 65% of the suspensions. To break it down further, black students account for only 23% of enrollment yet received almost half (46.6%) of the suspensions. Your average black student is 2.5 times more likely to be suspended than a white kid.

Who can look at the district's own statistics and wonder why there is an achievement gap? When you yank kids out of the classroom and dump them onto the streets, you do nothing to further their education or improve their behavior. You are saying to them, "We don't care if you learn or not. You are not wanted here. Get out of my class. Go away." And so many do go away, for good.

Hey, Administrators -- what do you think these kids are going to learn on the streets? It sure as hell ain't going to be Algebra. How many people are in jail because you couldn't deal with them in a more responsible manner? Suspensions as punishment is an outdated idea. In the 1950s, suspended students knew they would be disciplined severely by their parents at home. In a time when it takes most families two or even three incomes to survive, suspensions often become little more than vast expanses of empty time for a kid to fill as he or she wishes. In fact, most kids are unsupervised during their suspensions and more likely to get into criminal trouble.

Ti'Juana Hardwell is the editor of From The Streets.

Editor's update: On September 9th, Hope Street Youth Development hosted a community forum at which school officials, students, and parents could discuss and address the issue of school suspensions and low test scores in Wichita. Over 150 people (and some were turned away due to lack of standing room!) attended the discussion led by students Ti'Juana Hardwell, Kyle Ellison, Makayla Kayhill and Austin Green.

The meeting was a success and as a direct result, the school district has agreed to set up a task force to find alternatives to suspensions and will research the connection between suspensions and low test scores. In addition, Hope Street Youth Development leaders did over 25 press interviews in regards to the forum. Congratulations Ti'Juana, Kyle, Makayla, and Austin!

For Hope Street Youth Development's report on school suspensions and low test scores, go to www.hopestreet.com

For media coverage on the forum:

www.kansas.com/mld/kansas/news/6718369.htm

www.kansas.com/mld/kansas/news/6733422.htm

www.kansas.com/mld/kansas/news/6773487.htm

Where Did All the Summer Jobs Go?

summer jobAs a 13-year-old I couldn't wait to turn 14. Turning 14 meant getting a summer job and having a little cash in my hands. Not to mention, I'd be gaining experience in the work world. But did turning 14 really mean all this? No. When I first began looking for a summer job, I consulted my school's career counselor who assists students in finding jobs. She told me to go to The One-Stop Career Center.

A few friends and I went to the center hoping that we could gain some assistance in looking for the summer jobs we had been endlessly searching for. But instead we were told that they could not be of assistance to us. They told us that they helped "older youth." None of us were in the "older youth" category so they couldn't help us "younger youth." The One-Stop Career Center was supposed to help everyone ages 14-21. We left after a lady at the front desk suggested that we hunt for jobs in newspapers, at McDonalds, or at the annual Job Fair.

The Job Fair hardly provided jobs for youth either. They mainly set up mentoring programs for aspiring doctors, lawyers, police officers, and teachers. We did everything that they had suggested we do, and still, we had no jobs. So much for the One-Stop Career Center.

It sounds ridiculous to say this, but those were the good days. Finding a summer job was difficult but if you were one of the lucky ones you eventually found one. I'm almost 16 years old now and summer jobs for teens are even scarcer. A collapse in the economy has displaced so many adult workers in my city that they've all taken the few jobs that were once available to youth. The situation got so bad that my city decided to cancel the annual Job Fair because there weren't any summer jobs at all.

When I researched the problem I learned that a federal law, called the Workforce Investment Act, was affecting my chances to get a job. This program allowed states and local units to decide how federal dollars, intended for job-training programs, were to be spent. When the WIA came into effect in 2000, the number of federally funded summer jobs in my city alone dropped from nearly 800 to 0. That's right. When I say there aren't any summer jobs for us youth, I mean it.

The WIA program got caught slipping. Hope Street Youth Development, a local community organization I'm involved in, researched the program and found out that the WIA-funded summer youth employment services are no longer a part of a stand-alone program. Instead, the money intended for the program went to a year-round program. What's up with that? Not many 14 year olds I know can juggle a year-round job, full-time classes and homework.

This program puzzled me for another reason. They have a "Youth Council" that determines how to spend money but there's no "youth" on the council. A lack of youth presence on a board that is intended to serve us eliminates our voice. Having a Youth Council that has no youth voice is just like asking someone who has lost their taste buds if their lemonade is sweet enough. As if the problem wasn't already bad enough, the House just passed HR 1261, eliminating the federal requirement that Local Workforce Investment Boards have a Youth Council. In approving the Workforce Reinvestment Act and Adult Education Act of 2003, the House also approved plans to eliminate Youth Opportunity Grants (YOG). The YOG program was initiated in 1998 "to saturate" high poverty rural and urban communities with resources to reduce summer unemployment. The last thing we need to do is to scrap Youth Opportunity Grants.

Hope Street youth decided that something had to be done, so through a long direct action campaign, we convinced our Local Workforce Investment Board to create a new job program providing training and jobs for 30 youth. It was a great win for Hope Street youth, but we realized it was only a small solution to a very large problem. Nationally the current youth employment rate stands around 18 percent for all youth. So we did what any good youth group would do when faced with massive odds. We took action.

On June 2nd, 2003, members of Hope Street Youth Development involved in National People's Action, a national network of adult and youth community groups, went to Capitol Hill to hold a senate briefing on the Workforce Investment Act and how it is failing our youth. Over 150 people attended the Senate Briefing on Jobs and Youth, including 20 Senate staffers, 3 reporters and 4 allied organizations. We issued a report outlining the problem and made recommendations on how to solve it.

When I couldn't find a summer job I thought at first it was only my problem, but as I began to look around I realized that it's a national problem. Unless youth from across the country speak up and demand that more resources be put towards summer employment, there will be no opportunities now or in the years to come.

If lawmakers insist on denying us employment, this summer you won't find us on the clock. You may find us on the streets.

Ti'Juana Hardwell, 16, lives in Wichita, Kansas.
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