Graphic Courtesy of Lynne Harris
On April 22, Councilmember Tom Hucker and MCC-PTA President Lynne Harris co-hosted the second Montgomery County Virtual Student Town Hall. Hundreds of students across the county were able to tune in online from 7-8:30 p.m. through a Zoom webinar.
Eight student advocacy and leadership organizations were invited to talk about their group objectives and goals. Additionally, the groups had the opportunity to share how they were continuing to advance their priorities during the Covid-19 shutdown.
The groups composed of Montgomery County Regional SGA, Minority Scholars Program, MoCo 4 Change, MoCo Pride, DMV Student Alliance for Immigration, MoCo Students on Climate, Students Toward Equitable Public Schools and Youth Creating Change.
The town hall was entirely student-centered and moderated by former Student Member of the Board, Ananya Tadikonda.
In his opening remarks, Councilmember Tom Hucker recognized the ongoing National Student Leadership week. “Even during the current social distancing period, youth groups have continued to move ahead,” said Hucker.
Current SMOB Nate Tinbite also reiterated the importance of student leadership and communication during the Covid-19 shutdown. “This is not a time to stop organizing online. Digitally, we have platforms where we can continue echoing our voices and making sure that those in power really hear from us, the constituents and the voters,” said senior Nate Tinbite. “Through town halls like this, through email streams that get to members of the Board and other policy makers, we [as students] are able to continue sharing our voices.”
Following Tinbite and Councilmember Hucker’s opening remarks, each of the eight student advocacy groups had the opportunity to share their organization’s priorities and past actions. Each group briefly described their core objectives and gave a status update on their organization efforts during the Covid-19 shutdown.
The Montgomery County Regional SGA is the countywide SGA of all 26 MCPS high schools. Currently, both the MCPS Student Member of the Board and MCR-SGA elections have been postponed to May 20. “MCR’s Special Elections Committee has diligently been working to ensure the integrity of their elections in this new format,” said Helena Aytenfisu, a student at Richard Montgomery High School.
“During this period of distance learning, our organization is focusing on following its priorities [by] expanding student access to all resources,” said Sachi Sakaniwa, MCR Chief of Staff and a student at Albert Einstein High School. MCR is currently planning a fundraiser to contribute to food banks, advocating for equitable policies to support students in marginalized groups, and working towards the adoption of a credit/no credit system through a Change.org petition.
“MCR wants to emphasize communicating efficiently and offering opportunities for input. We’ve been distributing concise information in graphics on all media platforms,” said Sakaniwa. Additionally, MCR has been planning and holding “Instagram Takeovers,” featuring daily videos of MCR student leaders, alumni and sponsors.
The Minority Scholars Program is a “student led, student based, and student driven” program that works toward closing the educational achievement gap. MSP primarily aims to address existing ESOL isolation, stereotypes, microaggressions and the lack of diversity in staffing and educational curriculums. The program’s actions are based on four main initiatives: community outreach, peer-to-peer mentoring programs, college visits and a speaker series.
“While the Minority Scholars Program is currently [assembling] a final task force meeting, it also continues to plan for future teacher workshops, an annual education retreat and summer internships for community leaders,” said Summer Hajhamad, a student at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School.
MoCo 4 Change is a student-led platform that focuses on highlighting student voices on current issues. “The organization currently revolves around two major topics: gun rights prevention and the recent MCPS boundary changes,” said Claire Gelillo, co-founder and co-president of MoCo 4 Change and a junior at Richard Montgomery High School. Recently, MoCo 4 Change organized a Gun Rights Prevention Lobby Day, where over 50 students advocated in the Maryland General Assembly.
In response to the Covid-19 shutdown, MoCo 4 Change launched the MoCo Alumni Parent Program. The group comprises a vast network of MCPS alumni who are able to help current seniors with the college decision-making process. “[The program] provides a little bit of comfort and normalcy to the lives of seniors,” said Gelillo.
MoCo Pride is a student-led organization that promotes advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community. Over the past year, the group has successfully advocated for the inclusion of an LGBT curriculum in schools. Beginning next school year, Montgomery County will be one of the first school systems in the county to pilot an LGBT elective course. “MoCo Pride is definitely excited by this step forward, but we’re also thinking of other ways to reflect all students in the educational system,” said Uma Fox, founder and president of MoCo Pride and a sophomore at Richard Montgomery High School.
Since the Covid-19 shutdown, the organization has launched the MoCo Pride Speaks Out initiative. The project offers weekly meetings that feature varying events ranging from book clubs to mental health forums. MoCo Pride’s other priorities including enabling gender fluid laws, eliminating transgender discriminatory laws, and preventing LGBT-related bullying.
The DMV Student Alliance for Immigration advocates for educational equity and “fights for black, brown and immigrant bodies.” “The alliance is partnered with the Black and Brown Coalition to ensure that everyone, including low income families, has access to equitable education resources,” said Lauren Raskin, co-founder of SAI and a sophomore at Poolesville High School.
The SAI is advocating for increased monetary funding for students of low socioeconomic status in the county. “We need to ensure that black and brown students don’t fall through gaps of inequity,” said Raskin. Recently, the organization has also been working on a Know Your Rights Seminar for attendees.
MoCo Students on Climate is a student-driven group that addresses current climate crises. “We have three core objectives: policy change, people power and political power,” said Luca Utterwulghe, co-founder of the organization. “Policy change focuses on pressuring MCPS to pass acceptable policies on student advocacy. People power is based on boosting student awareness of current climate issues. Political power centers on partnering with other political individuals and groups to get our message heard.”
Over the past year, MoCo Students on Climate has started an action network petition, led students to advocate at the Sept. 20 climate strike and urged MCPS to take aggressive policy actions. During the Covid-19 shutdown, MoCo Students on Climate has partnered with the Sunrise initiative and other politicians to address current climate concerns.
Students Toward Equitable Public Schools (STEPS)’s two founding objectives are to strategize reasonable redistricting boundaries and to work on closing MCPS’s educational achievement gap. “To close the gap, we want to make sure that resources are given equitably in schools, hence the name,” said Avery Smedley, co-founder of STEPS and a junior at Albert Einstein High School.
“In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, our lense has been on [achieving] equity in this Covid[-19] crisis,” said Smedley. STEPS actively supports the pass/incomplete option for the full second semester and advocates for additional MCPS staff support. Additionally, STEPS is pushing for increased transparency in the county’s resource distributions. “We are very thankful with how MCPS handled the food distribution… but we want more open data on the food and Wi-Fi spatial distribution,” said Sonya Rashkovan, a freshman at Whitman High School.
Youth Creating Change is a program of Communities Against Hate. “YCC is a county-wide social justice organization devoted to elevating the efforts of our student activists,” said Olivia Gyapong, Outreach Coordinator of YCC and a junior at Blake High School. The initiative provides student activists with access to organizational assistance, mentorships, grant funding of up to $2000 along with training opportunities.
In adaptation to the Covid-19 shutdown, YCC has planned to host its annual “Virtual Social Change Fair” via three Zoom calls. “This is an opportunity for all of our students to interact with various community members through our social change fair,” said Gyapong. “Students will [each] have a gallery presentation and get to [converse] with peers who are completing [similar] projects.” The conferences will also feature guest speakers, including County Councilmember Nancy Navarro and Board of Education Vice President Brenda Wolff.
The virtual town hall was concluded by a press gaggle, where student journalists from all over Montgomery County were able to ask questions of the town hall participants.