'No' is not an option for teens seeking to talk with ed officials

Boston's annual Teen Empowerment Youth Peace Conference is about airing the issues, speaking up, and communicating with adults about what is going on in urban teens' lives. So when state education officials didn't show up last month after being invited to meet with students concerned about education in the city, participants were predictably disappointed.

But the students persisted - and last week, succeeded in getting the officials to sit down with them to discuss everything from the state of the schools to the controversial state graduation exam (MCAS). It was a testament to the possibility of a constructive teen-adult dialogue - though it may not have satisfied all of the expectations of the teens.

The gathering began innocuously enough. Students from Boston high schools exchanged icebreakers with Commissioner of Education David Driscoll, Board of Education Chair James Peyser, and Department of Education Director of Standards Jeffrey Nellhaus. But as they moved into contentious territory like the underresourcing of urban schools and high-stakes testing, tension filled the tight space.

Demetrius Jackson, who just completed high school and is applying for City Year, a program which places teens as aides in inner-city schools, summed up several students' comments when he told Commissioner Driscoll: "Guys like you should be our voice."

Demetrius has been a youth organizer for Teen Empowerment's South End/Lower Roxbury site for two years, although he's been involved in the group for about six. In its ninth year, Teen Empowerment is a forum for young people who want to improve their community. They hold regular events responding to neighborhood concerns.

For Demetrius, it's a way for youth to sound off not just to adults, but to each other. "A lot of people are too afraid to get out there and say something," he says. "But since I'm kind of popular, people respect me and listen to what I say."

That's exactly the point he was trying to get across to Driscoll: "Like music, politicians have an affect on people's attitude."

Other students at the meeting compared their schools to suburban counterparts, pushing the need for smaller classes, new buildings, and more resources -including, in some cases, enough books to go around.

Some of the responses met with resentment. "Part of the problem is keeping up with vandalism," Driscoll said to claims about dilapidated buildings.

Demetrius didn't appreciate what he read as an attempt to shift blame onto students: "Vandalism doesn't make a building a hundred years old."

In sizing up the meeting, he was more upbeat -though still with a touch of youthful irony. "I'd give it about a 'seven' because at least they came," he said.

Perhaps the highlight of the meeting came when officials suggested they reconvene to get into the topics with more depth. "I'm certainly hearing today that we've got a long way to go," said Driscoll. "But we've known that."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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