Young People Are Leaders of GradNation, Too

Story by Rachael Tutwiler Fortune

It’s not a field trip. It’s their job.

Young people in Minnesota — specifically members of the Minnesota Youth Council — have the right and responsibility, recognized in state law, to provide advice and recommendations to state legislators and the governor on issues affecting youth.

A few weeks ago, 175 young people in grades 5 through 12 attended Youth Day at the Capitol in St. Paul, asking well-researched questions and offering clear opinions on the availability of before- and after-school programs for students from low-income families, voter turnout, access to quality data, and high school graduation requirements.

A co-sponsor of the day’s events, Minnesota Alliance With Youth, recently received a $200,000 grant through the GradNation State Activation Initiative, a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to raise graduation rates. Through GradMinnesota, Minnesota Alliance With Youth is working to close statewide graduation gaps for students of color, low-income students, English language learners and students with disabilities.

This picture gallery highlights key moments from a powerful day of youth advocacy and a national model of youth civic engagement. (Photo Credit: Judy Griesedieck)

Youth Day at the Capitol began at Minnesota’s Wilder Foundation where presenters used games and innovative engagement strategies like to train and inform Minnesota youth on key legislative bills.
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon, an opening speaker, stressed the importance of developing good habits early. “On your 18th birthday, one of the greatest gifts you receive is real political power,” he told youth participants. “Our voice is our vote. Our vote is our voice.”
Carlos Mariani, a member of the Minnesota’s State House of Representatives encouraged youth participants to speak out on issues like the importance of diverse classrooms and teachers. “Youth voice changes how legislators think and act,” he said.
After the opening plenary, Minnesota youth participants broke out in smaller groups to learn more about current bills impacting young people.
Breakout sessions were led by Minnesota Youth Council members who would later decide whether or not to endorse each bill. The breakout sessions gave the young leaders an opportunity to hear directly from their constituency.
After a short lunch break, Youth Day at the Capitol transitioned to the State Office Building where Zach Correia (second from right), one of the Minnesota Youth Council committee chairs, called the Council’s committee meeting to order.
The committee room was packed wall-to-wall with young people, the caring adults supporting them, and other Minnesota leaders interested in the legislative process.
State legislators came to the committee meeting, hoping to win the Minnesota Youth Council’s endorsement. Senator Kevin Dahle (above), the chief author of an Afterschool Funding bill, succeeded in winning unanimous approval from the students. Today only 15 percent of Minnesota’s K-12 youth are able to participate in afterschool programs. The number is low, in part because in 2007, $11.4 million dollars in afterschool funding was cut from the state budget.
Senator Dahle shakes the hand of Ellen Baker, a youth witness who supported his afterschool funding bill. Ellen is a sixth grader at Laura Jeffrey Academy in St. Paul.
When Minnesota Youth Council member Rogelio Salinas (second from right) was asked what he most enjoys about Youth Day at the Capitol, he said, “It exposes K-12 students to the political process through the lens of other youth. It’s a joy to see the mutual respect of all engaged parties.”
Respect is exactly what the Minnesota Youth Council members earned as they raised tough and smart questions throughout the committee meeting. Senator Charles Wiger (above), chief author of a Digital Student Achievement Backpack bill.

Council members asked:

· “What happens to the data stored after students graduate?”

· “How would data be kept anonymous when used for research purposes?”

· “What is the estimated cost of developing the Digital Backpack?”

This bill was ultimately endorsed with a 23–0 vote.

The Council did not endorse every bill, however. The Civics Test Graduation Requirement bill presented by State Representative Dean Urdahl (above center) received only 4 votes. In her testimony, eighth grader Daeshanae Carter (above left) expressed concern about racial bias in the test.

Council members asked:

· “How will adding this requirement help Minnesota improve its poor graduation rate?”

· “How are we guaranteeing students learn what they need to know?”

· “Would it make more sense to restructure civics education instead of adding a new test as a graduation requirement?”

· “Does this test really measure civic engagement?”

State Senator Jim Carlson (above center) was joined by Secretary of State Steve Simon (above right) to advocate for a Pre-Voter Registration bill, which the Council endorsed. This bill would permit individuals who are 17 years old to register to vote, with the goal of “getting good habits started early” and increasing the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds who vote.
If these are the faces and the minds of Minnesota’s future leaders, the state is in good hands.

Sponsors of Youth Day at the Capitol include Minnesota Alliance With Youth, IgniteAfterschool, Youthprise, YWCA of Minneapolis, Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children (MnAEYC) & Minnesota School-Age Care Alliance (MnSACA), Minnesota Community Education Association (MCEA), and Kids Voting St. Paul.

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to improve them, join the GradNation Learning Community. Just send an email to Corey Benjamin with your name, email address and organizational affiliation.

To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.

Building a GradNation

A community working to reach a 90 percent on-time high school graduation rate by 2020.

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Building a GradNation

A community working to reach a 90 percent on-time high school graduation rate by 2020.