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Everyone has a shot at success, but not a fair shot

From a podium on the steps of the State Capitol, Luis Robles, a senior at CEC Middle College, spoke from experience. As a student who went to predominately low-income schools with peers who fell behind due to lack of support, Luis was well aware of the inequalities in public education.

On March 3rd, students gathered for the first annual “State of the Student,” designed to empower students and challenge the stakeholders of public education to create a more inclusive and intentional education system. I felt proud to have the opportunity to participate as a representative of Project VOYCE along with Luis and Chaunsae Dyson, a junior at South High School. Both were among the students to speak about their experiences in school and the changes they wanted to see.

Although I stood amongst a very small crowd of people, strong support was evident. Every student who spoke demanded equal funding for schools. Chaunsae also talked about how underfunding schools has increased the achievement gap before his very own eyes. He acknowledged, “There is an achievement gap that represents the United States in an un-united and unequal way.”

For the first time in my life, I watched students gather at the direct source of their frustration to share their stories and struggles with public education. The beautiful weather was a clear sign that this event was meant to happen, right at this particular moment. Students from Project VOYCE, Denver Student Union, and various Colorado schools came together to talk about standing up for their education.

Multiple students also talked about ending high stakes testing from schools, citing the fact that it leads to unequal funding for schools, as well as low-quality teaching standards. Students expressed frustration with the fact that they are taught concepts and “facts” specifically designed to be regurgitated on a test. One student, Michaela, talked about the billions of dollars invested in creating standardized testing. Alex Kacsh, a member of the Denver Student Union, passionately shared his critique of the school system stating that, “Our education system is being compromised and the students all across this state and across this country have been victimized by the same old politics.”

As I listened to the students express their concerns, I thought back to my own experiences in Denver Public Schools. Throughout my K-12 education, I went to schools where most of the students (including myself) were on free/reduced school lunch. I remember having outdated books and also having “vocabulary” words like “cat” in my 4th grade class. Prior to joining Project VOYCE when I was in high school, I knew that the quality of schools I attended was poor but I didn’t understand why. Once I learned about the unequal funding of schools and the achievement gap, I knew that something must be done; but, I was also confused by the fact that things were allowed to get so bad in the first place.

To discover that not much has changed in the six-plus years I have been out of high school is disheartening. I listened to students talk about the continued discrepancies in school funding and the intense focus on standardized testing with what sounded like worsening conditions. Although I have always done well on standardized tests, I was always stressed out by how time-consuming and tedious they were. Taking tests for several hours straight cannot possibly be a positive experience for anyone, regardless of age, yet that’s what we force students to endure.

Manual High School senior Anthony Scott expressed his concerns with performing well on standardized tests. He shared his experience as a slow reader who didn’t have time to finish reading three stories and then answer multiple questions in a 20-minute period on his last TCAP test. I knew many students like Anthony growing up. These students were not dumb nor were they lazy; however, the “one size fits all” style that standardized testing embodies does not accommodate the wide range of student learning styles.

Colorado students are asking for more comprehensive ways to evaluate their learning; a chance to get a fair shot. When will their requests be considered? I can’t help but be hopeful that the first annual “State of the Student” will be the catalyst for change that exposes people to the importance of bringing students to the table when their education is at stake. It is great to see young people take charge of their own rights, specifically the right to a quality education. I was lucky to be able to learn those tools through Project VOYCE and I commend the students of the Denver Student Union and high schools across the state who continue to push for positive change.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.