Members of the South Orange Middle School “Students for Social Change,” a new club that enables students to propose solutions to make positive changes within the community, traveled on Tuesday to Rutgers New Brunswick to present at the Graduate School of Education’s annual Youth in Action conference.
This was the first time SOMS students participated in the conference, said 8th grade Social Studies teacher Stephanie Rivera, the club’s advisor. The annual conference brings together elementary-high school students from schools in New Jersey that also run programs based on the Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) model. This student-led model allows the students themselves to propose issues they care about, and then work in committees to address the issues.
After a day of exploring and touring the campus, which included a scavenger hunt and lunch in the dining hall, “SOMS students spoke passionately in front of a crowd of about 100 students, teachers, professors, and undergraduate and graduate students about issues they care about,” Rivera said.
The five issues that students have decided to focus on include: racial justice, LGBTQ+ support — including proposing such ideas such as a gender-neutral bathroom — and improving the environment, curriculum, and timing of the high school. “Through this club, students have an empowering and safe space to explore and pursue their passions with guided support,” said Rivera. They also learn about civic engagement and how to effectively go about having their voices heard.
Since January, students conducted extensive research about their chosen issues, including looking at past/relevant studies, interviewing peers and staff, and creating online surveys. Students then analyzed, synthesized, and used their research to assist with their proposals.
“We were so proud of the students,” said parent chaperone Michael Kasdan, whose two children are in the club. “They really shined. They had clearly put a lot of time and thought into their topics and presentations. It was very eye opening for me as a parent to see our kids take such a leadership role on social issues like race, gender, and education, and I’m sure it is really meaningful for them to see how they can shape their own lives and communities.”
Kasdan added, “Miss Rivera deserves high praise for putting this all together and being such a terrific energetic role model.”