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Joining the Conversation

The Youth Advocacy Council trainees were tasked this month with attending a community event focused on education. It could be a school board meeting, legislative session or in the case of the student below, a meeting with the Christina School District Budget Oversight Commission. These observations come from a rising senior at Cab Calloway School of the Arts:

At first I was disappointed to miss the Red Clay Board meeting for the month of July; it seemed as though an opportunity to introduce myself to my local educational community had slipped past. However after looking for other ways to join the conversation I found the Christina Citizen Budget Oversight Committee, a citizen-run board that discusses economic issues in the district. Attending a meeting with this board gave me a literal seat at the table, in a small group discussion which still maintained the importance and professionalism of an actual board meeting. Prior to attending the meeting I researched the objectives and foundation of the Committee which provided me with insight into its purpose and processes. On the other hand, coming into the meeting I was generally ignorant to the specific economic problems that Christina faced as for one I attend a high-school in Red Clay, and secondly financial issues are generally intimidating to the non-expert like myself, so I was not sure what to expect specifically.

The meeting began with a summary of the 2018 fiscal year tax items for the District and then delved deeper into more specific aspects of the year. After discussing and analysing many numerical, tax-related items on the agenda, some of which flew straight over my head, the meeting formally came to a close. At this point I was able to talk to the four members in attendance about financially related education topics that I knew were facing many districts in Delaware, and get their professional and personal ideas. As the only non-member in attendance my questions were heard directly and I could follow up immediately for clarification. I addressed two broad topics with my questions that I remember were hot topics at the first Y.A.C. meeting: redistricting and property reassessments. For both of these topics my understanding of the issues going into the meeting was altered dramatically and in the span of about a 30 minute discussion these four people completely changed my opinions and perspectives. To hear in-depth analysis of the financial repercussions of these two processes was very interesting and gave me a profound respect for the knowledge these members possessed as well as their passion for the ideas, particularly since they are simply interested citizens. Coming out of the meeting I still had many questions regarding other specific issues but nonetheless felt much more informed both when it financial issues of education and generally the way policy meetings such as this one operate, including the ways I and other students can get involved.

Earlier in the Summer I had the opportunity to attend the American Legion Boys State program in Dover while the Y.A.C. met with legislators in the city. Through the connections of Boys State we heard from policy makers and other officials from the representatives like Brian Townsend to current governor John Carney. Across each of the speeches given and discussions had with these leaders one topic that stood out was education. This interest in bettering the state’s education system allowed us young people to further our understanding by asking questions and providing our own ideas about certain subjects. Aside from hearing from leaders, the program also provided us with a platform to debate important issues in a legitimate setting, putting young people into the roles of representatives with the goal of drafting and passing mock legislation. With Y.A.C.’s goals in mind I wrote numerous bills regarding education reform and was able to hear the ideas of my peers on such issues.

While both of these novel experiences varied greatly in many aspects, both provided me with a door into the policy making world. They provided me with real insight into how decisions are made and were extremely valuable first steps into my development as a leader and contribution as a citizen. While I may have only begun to join the conversation I know I will continue to have more a voice in these important issues.


04/24 BSD School Board Meeting Transcript

Below is the transcript from the Public Comment part of last night’s agenda. Two students, Alphina Kamara and Alexis Cope, questioned board members about how they plan to increase African American/Latino enrollment in AP/IB courses.

Alphina and Alexis:

Hello my name is Alphina Kamara and this is Alexis Cope. We are juniors at Mt. Pleasant High School. I am currently enrolled in 2 AP classes and Alexis is on the IB track. We both are part of TeenSHARP, a selective college prep program that prepares us for access into the nation’s top colleges. As you can see, we are high achieving students, eager to accomplish great things after high school. But when we look around our AP/IB classrooms, there are only a handful of people who look like us. It’s a very isolating experience, and it is the reason we are coming to you today.

So what do we know? We know that, according to the Delaware Department of Education, 30.4% of students at Mt. Pleasant are African American and 45% are white. And yet, we see that over 85% of students taking advantage of STEM related AP/IB courses at Mt. Pleasant are white. We know that the racial achievement gap is a real national issue, to which Delaware is not immune. And we know that taking AP/IB courses directly affects one’s access to top colleges and subsequently economic prosperity.

Some might say that the reason for this disproportionate enrollment is because minority students are not obtaining the grades necessary to transition smoothly into more rigorous classes. But Mt. Pleasant offers open enrollment to APs, and still this demographic is not applying at equal rates. There is clearly a much deeper, more systemic issue at play.

Many of the 30% of black students at our school will be first generation college goers. Without the advantage of parental guidance, these students may not understand the importance of striving for AP courses. For example, we are both a part of TeenSHARP, and if we hadn’t benefited from their advising, we might have been too intimidated to take Mt. Pleasant’s toughest courses, even though we are certainly capable.

So you see we cannot blame students for this gap. Our schools have a responsibility to place special emphasis on those lacking any sort of guidance around college access.

Therefore, we want to know how this school board is increasing access to rigorous courses for all? But more specifically, given that certain demographics are more affected by lack of access, how does this board intend to substantially raise the amount of African American and Latino students participating in AP/IB courses?

John Skrobot (Board President): Well part of the issue is that, with kids in the city, it’s very important that we build a foundation for academic success at the elementary school level. And we have been implementing this and in these cases it’s been very successful. We have just been recognized by the state for uh…what was it for? (looks to superintendent)

Mark Holodick (Superintendent): For their math growth last year, in terms of DCAS scores in grades 3rd through 5th.

Skrobot: Right. So we’re trying to build from the foundations of the elementary schools to give these children a chance once they progress from middle school into high school. So that when they get to high school, they’re better prepared. I’m sure this board would be open to any suggestions that you might have to guide us on how to help children.

Alphina: As of now we believe we need to be putting in place more and better trained guidance counselors to adequately meet with additional students. I’ve noticed that our counselors are overburdened and they aren’t able to truly guide us in the right directions because they’re too busy.

Skrobot: Well, um, every year you have a student application week, where the students can come apply to colleges in the school. And then, not this year but the prior year, the Education Foundation helped with students that couldn’t afford the application fees. I think we’ll have to reach out to the schools again next year, so that students that may not consider applying due to their financial backgrounds can get the help they need.

Cheryl Siskin: I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about. Not just the financial burden, but the emotional support, the mentoring, the guidance and the confidence and…

Alexis: We are advocating for students to have greater access to challenging coursework.

Siskin: Right. So I appreciate very much what you’re saying there. We do have the Achievers Academy which tries to bring kids up. The AVID program we have. The extent to which you guys can help spread the word that it’s better to take an AP class and get a B than an easy class and get an A. That’s a hard message for us to get across and we’ve got to get the word into your communities. So from my perspective I think some of this comes from internally, organically as you would present from inside your community. I love the idea of more guidance counselors and I hope that one day we are able to support this. But you guys can be role models in your community and help sread the word that people need to push themselves harder. And I think this needs to happen as early as Kindergarten, maybe even as early as pre-K. I mean, we’re advocates of education but we need the community to be advocates too. So if you can think of ways we can work together, I’d be amenable to hearing ways that we can share the importance of education from early on. Because it builds on itself.

(quick exchange with board member Kristin Pidgeon asking to know more about TeenSHARP)

Holodick: So Alphina and Alexis, first and foremost, thank you for being here tonight and speaking on this important issue. When Mr. Simmons (sp?) and I investigated TeenSHARP as a program, one of the things that we were interested in was this different approach to empowering students, in particular students of color, who have historically not achieved at the level they should and access college at a rate that’s acceptable. And the idea that you mentioned of adding counselors, is a good one but it’s a very costly one so I don’t think it’s a realistic idea right now…Going back to the conversation that he and I had with the founders of TeenSHARP was the concept of empowering students like yourselves, who would then work with other prospective students that have the potential to take high level academic courses and ultimately go on to college. Because we know, it’s a combination of both skill and will, and if you identify the students who have the skill (and we can do that and have done that), it’s you, the peers, who have the potential to help with the will side of it. To do some of the work that guidance counselors would do with your peers. So we’re relying on you within this program. That’s something we’re going to analyze very closely, is the impact of TeenSHARP. Because as Ms. Siskin and others mentioned, we have AVID, we have advancement in individual determination for years and we know it works for all students. We know the Achievers Academy works. This is a little more focused on a particular subset of students and the concept is more about empowering students to suport one another and push one another and changing the culture and climate within the school through the students than it does the adults. You’re aware of that right?

Alphina: I’m aware but the purpose is to be advocates, so we advocate in our schools just as we advocate here for them.

Holodick: I think that’s wonderful. Continue to advocate. Please note my message is in support of you advocating. But it’s also in support of you helping other students achieve the promise that they have as well.

Siskin: So be leaders in your own community,  your school community, your residential community, and other communities that you’re a part of. You have the courage to talk to us, you can talk to others too and be leaders and model the examples of success. I think that’s great. Is Brandywine High School on the list of schools that TeenSHARP accepts?

Alphina: Yes we have students from Brandywine.

Holodick: The people that run TeenSHARP, Atnre and his wife Tatiana, when we met with them there were specific walkaways and deliverables that we are relying on through this program. And it’s wonderful to see two of the “deliverables”, so to speak, tonight with the courage to come and speak. So I thank you.

Alphina: No, thank you.

Something to think about:

Students are encouraged to be a part of the solution, but cannot vote for the school board members that represent them. If we expect these students to solve the racial achievement gap on behalf of the district, why are they not given the same amount of influence over policy decisions?


Attendance at School Board Meetings Could Increase Voter Turnout


Only 42% of eligible voters in the US showed up to vote for the 2016 presidential election. While it may seem shockingly low, this year’s turnout was not an exception when you look at historical averages. In fact, a large population of disengaged citizens is actually pretty commonplace in the US, and can be traced directly to the lack of effective civics education within our school systems. Many schools offer government and civics courses, but rarely offer valuable lessons around how to run for office, testify, vote, or protest (e.g. how to utilize the democratic process as it was originally intended). So it makes sense that a student who has not been taught the value of civic participation will likely evolve into an apathetic voter as an adult.

“…a student who has not been taught the value of civic participation will likely evolve into an apathetic voter as an adult.”

To address this, I am in the process of building a Youth Advocacy Council in Delaware, which will equip students with the skills to advocate on their own behalf at school board meetings, and ideally down at legislative hall in Dover. The goal is not necessarily for the kids to secure any major policy wins (yet), but moreso to get them comfortable being involved in the democratic process at the local level. 

That said, I realize there are many adults who have never been exposed to this process, so I am sharing an easily digestible, step by step process for testiyfing at your school board meetings:

1. Explain the specific policy you would like to change 

For those of you that have never seen a school board’s policy manual, it is a behemoth. Thousands of policies are listed, and you can’t expect school board members to have them all memorized. Therefore, identify the specific policy you would like to repeal or amend. 

Ex: “I would like to amend Sec. 3 clause 2, which currently states that teachers need to submit all grades before the end of the marking period.”

By defining it for the board, they are reminded of the purpose for that policy. 

2. Explain the deficiencies of the current policy

Before explaining how you would like to change the policy, you need to let the school board members know why it is insufficient as it currently stands.

Ex: “This policy currently gives teachers too much time to submit grades. As a result, some students don’t have time to contest a grade or make an appeal until the marking period has already passed.”

3. Propose an amendment to the current policy

Make sure your suggestion matches the SMART goal format: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time sensitive. Then explain the benefits of changing it in this way.

Ex: “I propose amending the policy so that it reads “…teachers must submit all grades within 2 weeks after the assignment has been returned by the student.” This will hold teachers more accountable for submitting grades in a timely manner.

4. Address/ reject any counter claims

Before the school board has the opportunity to question you, make sure you address any possible arguments that could be made against your proposal.

Argument Example: Some people might think that teachers are inundated with assignments that need grading and that it’s unrealistic to expect them to produce grades in such a quick turnaround.

Counterargument: “But I have teachers who facilitate 5 separate classes and are able to submit grades within this timeframe.” (It’s always good to invite an expert, or in this case the teacher you are referring to, to testify with you).

5. Summarize your proposal but give them no way to opt out

Summary: Therefore, I request the school board amend Sec. 3 clause 2 so that it reads “…teachers must submit all grades within 2 weeks after the assignment has been returned by the student.”

No opt out: “Is it reasonable to expect this change to be made by the end of the month or at the very least before the beginning of the next school year?” (By making the assumption that the change will be enacted, it removes the possibility of the school board denying your proposal).


You can use this method for virtually any policy. Some will require more in depth research than others. But it’s imperative that we cultivate a sense of responsibility within students and adults to participate in this process, especially if we want to see a reversal in the way our society views civic involvement.

We can’t complain about the inefficiencies of our democratic system if we aren’t simultaenously willing to get involved. 

Student Safety Disregarded at DE Public High School

Student Safety Disregarded at DE Public High School

On Wednesday February 1st, one of my TeenSHARP students was physically assaulted by another student at her school. The attack had been unprovoked, as proven by a video recording taken by a bystander.

But despite clear surveillance evidence, my student was given a 2 day suspension and asked to go home. Fortunately today, that suspension was revoked. But I want you to see the arduous process we had to undergo just to prove a child’s innocence:

  1. The student who assaulted our student [known henceforth as “the attacker”] walked out of the classroom she was supposed to be in without anyone stopping her.
  2. The attacker walked into the classroom and starts yelling at our student. The teacher interfered by stepping in between the attacker and our student, who had her back to the girl so as not to elevate the situation.
  3. The attacker dropped her backpack, pushed the teacher aside, and began to throw punches at our student.
  4. Our student is thrown to the ground, where the attacker sat on top of her and started pulling her hair.
  5. Our student managed to push her off but the attacker still gripped her hair tightly.
  6. At this point, the principal walked in and separated them.
  7. The students were led to separate rooms. No testimony from our student was written down, and she was immediately given a 2 day suspension and asked to go home. (Red flag #1- No investigation was completed prior to assigning this consequence.)
  8. Today, mother calls us at TeenSHARP and asks us to attend a meeting with the principal the following day. The advocacy agency Education Voices, Inc. also files an appeal with the school.
  9. The principal says he cannot meet with us until 1:30pm, as he apparently needs even more time to investigate (Red flag #2- it’s been over 24 hours at this point, more than enough time to interview witnesses). It is now 11:30am, meaning our student will have to miss almost another full day of school.
  10. He claims not to have seen the video, so mother and daughter quickly pull it up. Despite seeing the attacker lunge to initiate a fight, he still claims that the fight was mutual and delays a decision on the appeal.
  11. After waiting in the office for over an hour, we finally see the principal again. As we sit, he accuses the mom of recording this meeting, even though she wasn’t. (Red flag #3- If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear.) Meanwhile, I started recording.
  12. The principal opens a file full of statements from witnesses and admits that our student was wrongfully accused, and can return to class.
  13. We asked about next steps, as in, what is the school going to do to ensure this doesn’t happen again. He said the only action they take once a student returns from suspension is a one time mediation with both parties. This is the conversation that followed:

*The girl Amy that I referred to was a girl who was assaulted and killed by her peers at Howard High School just over a year ago.

**Note the silence that follows after I asked if we could count on him for support, should the  mother and daughter decide to press charges.  What you can’t see is that at that point he walked away from us and got on the phone. (Red flag #4, why was the student and her mother never given the option to press charges in the first place?)

Not recorded: We asked if we could get copies of the testimonies, as they are connected with both students’ records. He said no and that he intended to shred them.

Moral of the story: This school made no promises to keep our student safe moving forward. A policy needs to be made to guarantee these assaults are not recurring. Options include:

  1. Increased monitoring of repeat offenders, including greater access to rehabilitative/support services outside of a one time mediation.
  2. In school “safety from abuse” gaurantees (i.e. restraining orders)
  3. Adding an appeal process into the suspension policy (currently doesn’t exist in their handbook)
  4. Adding a justification clause to the suspension policy in the handbook, where administrators are required to investigate prior to assigning a suspension

When a victim has to prove their innocence, there is no justice. Where a principal chooses not to protect a child, there is no safety. At one point in the video you can hear him say “there are police on the streets but bad stuff still happens”. Translation:  I accept that my school is unsafe and choose to do nothing about it.

If this bothers you, read your student’s handbook and see if these components are missing, attend the next public school board meeting, and share your concerns.


(Permission to share this video was granted by the parent.)



Opinions Can’t be Wrong, right?


My mom always told me to wait one day before addressing something that upset me, and three days for anything that got me close to punching somebody. I almost failed her this week. But now that I’ve taken my deep breaths and my 72 hours, here is what I have to say.

Our country is divided. That much is clear. And the dividing line partitions two great passions, both attempting to convince the other how this country should proceed and the beliefs it should uphold.

But Jesus we’re aggressive about it, myself included. We have so much conviction to stand our ground and remain unwavering in the face of real and dangerous conflict. I’ve been called a hypocrite for showing intolerance of others’ opinions post-election. So I wanted to fact check myself and make sure I was conscious of what shaped the views I defend. I wanted to be able to explain that opinions, when not based on fact, should not be so viscerally preserved. They could even, dare I say it, be wrong.

So first, it is important to understand where our beliefs* come from:

It is human nature to form assumptions based on what we’ve seen, who we’ve met, and the experiences we’ve had. Beliefs are formed off of these assumptions: right vs wrong, truth vs lies, enemy vs. friend. They establish our fears too. What bad experiences taught you to be afraid of whatever it is your afraid of?Image result for experiences create fear

  • Our sense of empathy, or lack thereof

Our ability to empathize with someone else’s viewpoint substantiates, and sometimes helpfully contradicts what we believe. It allows us to transcend the confines of our worldview, and expose ourselves to perspectives that may be unrelatable. This does not make their opinions more or less valid, but it does give you access to ideas and feelings you may not have considered. In every scenario and with every value, it is vital to do your research and gather as many points of view as possible. Several resources are available to help you strengthen your ability to empathize with others. The best place to start is trying to defend the opposing view of what you believe, it won’t be easy.Image result for empathy gif

  • What we have to gain/lose

This deals less with where our beliefs come from, and more about the intensity behind those beliefs. Our conviction is often fueled, or dampened, by what we get out of a situation; both factors highly influence our behavior. For example, when we want someone to like us (something to gain), we tend to downplay our opinions. Otherwise, it could mean cut ties or, at the very least, an uncomfortable conversation.

Image result for you can't sit with us

So we hold our tongue, or water down our opinion in the presence of those we don’t want to offend. However, if we’re in a setting where group think allows us to feel as though we have nothing to lose, our opinion grows more fierce with each new addition to the group.

Image result for protesting gif

Think about your most fiercely held beliefs. What do you get out of them? What would you lose if you were to give up those opinions? Who else might be affected by your opinions regardless of whether you have something to gain or lose? Reminding yourself that others have a stake in your opinion is part of empathizing. What you put out to the world no longer becomes just yours. It has the potential to benefit or harm others too.

Now, how do you prove that an opinion is correct, or, more correct than others? This requires everyone understanding first that opinions can be wrong.

  1. If an opinion is based on bad data, in can be invalidated, just as any other piece of information. Solution: Fact check. Where are you getting your beliefs from? Do you know what makes a source credible? If not, here you go.
  2. Opinions that can harm others either on their surface or in effect, are no longer legitimate. Even if a person is a known jerk, and you have multiple people confirming this, saying it out loud and inspiring others to take action because of it does nothing to enhance your life, but it could seriously damage someone else’s.**  Similarly, when a person tells you that you’ve hurt them, you don’t get to be a jerk and decide that you didn’t. Image result for you hurt me therefore I don't like youSolution: Ask yourself:
    • Who might this opinion hurt if I perpetuate it? And, if I am aware this hurts others and I’m okay with that, why?
    • What value do I derive from others’ hurt?
    • By saying these hurtful things, I acknowledge there is something I fear; what is it?

Opinions should be malleable, evaluative, and based on thorough analysis. I suggest testing your beliefs via Bloom’s Taxonomy. How does it hold up against rigorous evaluation? Before you can prove an opinion is “more correct”, it has to be proven true in the first place.

If you take anything away from this post it is this:

  • If your opinion has the potential to negatively impact another but has no effect on you- it is wrong. (Nope. Don’t wanna hear it. Wrong.) Ex: “A woman’s right to choose what to do with her body should be revoked.” (Unless you are a woman, your opinion is wrong because the impact of that opinion will not affect you).
  • Analyze your every belief and write down the corresponding gain/loss. Be brutally honest with yourself. Much of your reasoning may have been subconscious this whole time.
  • Critically evaluate your opinions to see if they can hold up against these tests.

Disclaimer: I am by no means the arbiter of truth. But we’re overdue for the commencement of critical thinking, and this is where it starts.

*For the purpose of this post, opinions are synonymous with beliefs
** This is something I personally have to work on. I’m an ENTJ, and therefore quick to call out others on their BS.

TeenSHARP Opening Ceremony Speech

Sharing the speech I gave at TeenSHARP’s opening ceremony last week:

Good afternoon! Thank you everyone for being here today, to celebrate such an impressive group of students. Before I discuss the plans for this year and all that we have in store, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on why we are all here in the first place. Why does TeenSHARP exist and why is this organization such a necessity, not only for students, but for the community, the state, and ultimately the nation?

Primarily, TeenSHARP exists to combat “educational inequities” that affect students of color. For example, only 14% of high achieving high schoolers in Delaware are attending colleges that match their academic potential. Among those who are low income, 30% aren’t going anywhere after high school.

Directly correlated with this, are the economic reports that forecast by 2020, 30% percent of jobs in Delaware will require a Bachelor’s degree. But only 21% of African Americans and 15% of Latinos are currently equipped with such a credential. These barriers to quality education, and meaningful, high paying employment will persist if we don’t help our students gain admission into top universities that also meet 100% of financial need.

But this is half the battle. TeenSHARP also exists because we see the capabilities of young people being vastly underutilized. In our presentations and discussions, you’ve heard us talk about the importance of authentic youth empowerment. And when it comes to education policy, we know that young people are the biggest stakeholders and deserve a seat at the table. Part of our job is to encourage our students to think critically and question their surroundings, embrace leadership roles, utilize their voices and be unafraid to challenge the injustices they see.

Over the course of this year, we’ll talk extensively about racial injustice, in and outside the realm of education. We’ll discuss terms like “affirmative action” and “micro-aggressions”, terminology that is paramount to shaping your understanding of our current society.

The other day I argued with one of my friends because he had said that what America needs is a gradual revolution against racial inequality. I reject that claim because, as the black lives matter movement crescendos, in the thralls of police brutality, and as we continue to practice civil disobedience only to be met with inaction, “gradual” is not an option anymore.

In TeenSHARP, time is precious and we move with a sense of urgency. The stakes (in this case our students’ outcomes and their roles as future leaders) are too high to wait for policies and laws to tell us things need to change. President Johnson wrote in his commencement address at Howard University, that much of the black community “is buried under a blanket of history and circumstance. It is not a lasting solution to lift just one corner of that blanket. We must stand on all sides and raise the entire cover” if we are to be successful.

TeenSHARP is so much more than just a college prep program and we pledge to do our best to help lift every corner. But in no way do we do it alone. We may have grass roots but these roots are thriving and multiplying. As Tatiana mentioned, we have more volunteers than ever before and I’d like to take a moment to have TeenSHARP staff, instructors, mentors, advisors, tutors, and all other volunteers stand and be recognized.

Students, in addition to your parents, these are your advocates and your teammates. This year, all of us have worked together to provide you with the following opportunities:

-Admission officers from Wesleyan, Williams, Washington University, and several others will be coming to meet you as well as Governor Markell

-We will be hosting a panel on leading change in the community as well as one on careers in healthcare, pharmacy, and philanthropy

-We are organizing several days of service and an internship fair, and we have college tours planned for Lehigh University, Lafayette College, Haverford, UPenn, and a two-day trip to Boston U, Harvard, Tufts, and MIT

-Parents, we are also coordinating workshops for you throughout the year and we hope that you will participate in as many as you can


So this year, I challenge you to take full advantage of these opportunities and this network of champions available to you. Breach your comfort zones and inspire others in the process. And most of all know that everyone in this room is invested in your success.

Nothing is gradual about TeenSHARP, but we’re certainly revolutionary. And I am proud to be at the forefront with such impactful leaders.