Nation Building: Out with the Old and In with the New

Imagine, if you will, that you are a citizen of a small nation. Now this nation has been trudging along through the years, its citizens coming and going, most of them not angered, but never truly happy with their lives in this small land; it could always be better, someway, somehow. But alas, these unwitting citizens never really know how, or even care, to change their beloved nation. And so, the apathetic malaise continues to cloud the nation’s skies.

But then imagine that all of a sudden a group of leaders from this nation decides that a change is needed, now. This nation decides to split three ways, into three smaller states, so that each could better attend the needs of its people, and make its citizenship worthwhile, productive, and most importantly, enjoyable.

This very sort of “Nation-Building” has taken place at the Tyee Campus in Washington state. Students, teachers, and administrators have taken the foundations of mediocre norms and pulled them down, laying the groundwork for a more rigorous learning environment not just for the students, but for all of those involved with the school. Three new small schools have been formed from the old Tyee High School: the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment (ACE), Global Connections High School, and Odyssey: The Essential School.

I myself am now a happy citizen of ACE, which is in its second full year. We have made major strides from where we were last fall. The students have taken the initiative to build the school they wish to be a part of, and it has shown in the results. One area in particular that I, along with several other students, have labored over this past year, and in the coming year, is forming a truly representative and fully efficient student government structure here at ACE.

Last fall, the administrators decided to place the responsibility of crafting a student-driven government squarely on the shoulders of the students, and we eagerly seized the opportunity with both hands. Right off the bat, we held elections in our advisory classes to see who would be our representatives from those advisories. We didn’t quite know what we were going for, but as we sat around the tables in our meeting rooms, we knew what we wanted: a student-led governing body that could make actual decisions that equitably represented every single student voice at ACE This list included student representatives from each grade level, students for whom English is a second language, students with hearing complications, and students with special needs, all members and all important to ACE We wanted to be about more than just raising money for dances and supporting our sports teams; we wanted to have a say in what was taught, how it was taught, what kind of learning tools we should have access to, and how to make our small school better in any way we could.

We didn’t realize just how tough all of this would be. Honestly, we simply spun our wheels on some issues. Every time we thought a decision was made, we brought ourselves back to what we were about: representing and making equitable decisions for ALL students. And so back to the drawing board it was for us, but we knew the next decision would include all of our students this time, and everyone would have a voice. That became our driving force: “Every student has a voice.”

And so in year two, we now know of ways to make every student’s voice heard on every issue at our school. We have organized what we call “Chalk Talks,” where we post an essential question dealing with issues of social justice, and students and staff may at any time add their opinions in writing on these boards in our halls. An example of such a Chalk Talk was the question: “What is the most pressing social justice issue of our time? How should we solve it?” Two student responses jumped out to me from the bulletin board. One was: “Prejudice in all its forms—race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender.” The second read: “Students being comfortable with having social justice, because some of them have never [experienced] this. Teach students what social justice really means.”

With the help of other student leaders here, I have crafted a Constitution that explains and is evidence of the purpose of student voice, so that we can now have a structure of student government in place that encourages and even demands student voice. We, as a school, held our first ACE Conclave in February 2006, halfway through our year, which was a time and place where students could assess the progress of their learning and the progress of ACE Our advisors encouraged us to give ideas for new classes and curriculum changes. One suggestion was a photography class, and beginning this year, we now have a Graphic Arts and Digital Photography class, which truly shows just how much decision-making power we as students now have.

I wouldn’t change a single moment of my experience from this past year. In working toward our goals of authentic student voice, I’ve learned just how many groups, not only in education, but also beyond the classroom, are not treated with fairness and equality. In order to reverse these social wrongs, the student leaders at ACE must continue to strive for inclusion of these groups, like the deaf and hard of hearing, English language learners, and students with special needs, and even younger students in the decision-making processes at ACE I also learned that creating a working student government from scratch isn’t as easy as “Just Add Water.”

I, along with the rest of last year’s student advisory representatives, have worked extra hours both at and away from school to make our goal become our reality, but we cannot rest on our laurels. We have to, and are going to, work even harder and smarter to completely fulfill our ultimate goal: having a school where all students are actively empowered to advocate for their own learning, actively involved in their school and community, and actively pursuing social justice wherever they may go.

So just imagine our small nation again. But now, its citizens are empowered to sculpt their own learning pathways. These citizens are all involved in the direction of their nation. These citizens are excited to be part of their nation, and leave their nation ready for the world before them. This nation is closer to being a reality than you think. This nation is being built at the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment today.

The Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment (ACE)
The Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment (ACE) is in its second year as a new small school created from Tyee High School. Located in SeaTac, Washington, ACE serves six communities in the Seattle area and is part of the CES Small Schools Project.

Michael Sawyer is a senior at the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment in SeaTac, Washington. He is heavily involved in the expansion of student voice abroad and on campus, specifically through student government and its responsibilities to students.