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Teens voice pain points, share successes with the House Education Finance Division

Many students say they’re overscheduled and overstressed. They recognize inequities within and across schools, see a lack of teacher diversity and say they crave stronger support systems in the way of more mental health professionals and counselors at school.

These were the consistent messages shared by youth Thursday with the House Education Finance Division, which dedicated its first meeting of the 2020 session to listening to the stories and concerns of students and parents.

“Today, we are opening much as we did last year … centering the voices of students and parents in the educational experience in Minnesota’s public schools,” said Rep. Jim Davnie (DFL-Mpls), the division chair. 

The students and parents were given three questions to guide their testimony:

  • tell us what it’s like to be a student at your school;
  • what do you think makes you a successful learner; and
  • what barriers have you, or maybe a friend of yours, experienced that you think have gotten in the way of learning.

Teens tend to take on so much — from college-level classes to a loads of extracurriculars — to ensure admission to choice colleges, and to acquire as many scholarships as possible, according to Ava Kalenze, a junior at St. Anthony Village High School in Minneapolis.

“The stress of junior year and all of high school is visible in my peers, and the student support needed to make it through successfully is lacking,” she said. “Many of my peers are aware of and care for their mental health, however, the appropriate resources are not available to us.”

While there are approximately 1,000 students at Kalenze’s school, there are two guidance counselors who coordinate schedules and one mental health professional. The recommended student-to-counselor ratio is one for every 250 students, she said.  

Hailey Dickinson, a junior at North Saint Paul High School, reiterated the need for more support staff, and shared concerns regarding school safety. She cited multiple instances of violence and threats, and the subsequent chaos and confusion that ensued. 

“We have had more threats than I can count on one hand and, with that, I would never trust my life with the school administration because they are simply not prepared,” she said.

Other concerns shared by students include a lack of teachers of color, and disparities within and among schools — from class sizes to allocation of resources. Central High School sophomore Adri Arquin said class sizes at the Saint Paul school have surpassed 40 students, and tend to be larger than those of suburban high schools.

“This has led to problems in our classrooms,” he said, “leading them to be more dysfunctional, leading to kids not being able to pass more classes, leading to a lowering in our graduation rates.”

Rep. Heather Edelson (DFL-Edina) commended the students for their testimony, representing their peers, and sharing their concerns. “We passed Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, 66 years later we’re still struggling with some of the same issues around disparities.”

Other members offered a variety of questions and comments, including Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton) asking students what they feel makes them successful.

“I think what makes me a successful learner is that I’m really independent,” Dickinson said. “I take it upon myself to get my stuff done, I focus.” She added that she’s fortunate to have resources and support that other students do not have.   


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