According to Student Equity Team facilitator Kelly Arnold at Orange High School, “The students have the ideas, and they are the ones doing the work… They put the heart into it, and we (the adults) serve them.”
Equity and access are collectively one of the most important issues in public education right now and the members of the Orange High School Student Equity Team agree. With about 50 students on the mailing list, and 10–15 highly active members, this student-led organization has made it possible for the first ever African American Studies course to be taught at OHS beginning second semester!
In addition, they are working with school leaders to implement a Latinx Studies Course (plans are in progress), and one day, an Indigenous Studies Course.
“The kids know better than the adults what the needs are in their school,” said Arnold.
The students have also spearheaded the creation of a common language of equity among students and staff committed to equity in OHS. That way, everyone can be on the same page, using the same terminology if an issue or concern must be addressed. The students are training the faculty on this language, which also keeps an open dialogue.
The students on the team also know that access to AP and Honors courses can be the ticket to college for students, so they work to recruit talented students of color to take a chance on the higher-level courses. At the same time, they emphasize to staff the importance of making students of color feel capable and welcome in both these courses and the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, which targets first generation college kids.
Students also lead virtual roundtable discussions, periodically, to have courageous conversations and identify areas how staff can better create a safe, inclusive, and welcoming school culture. Topics include why staff should SPEAK UP to address microaggressions, even though it may FEEL uncomfortable. Other conversations have tackled issues such as the achievement gap, the challenges English Language Learner (ELL) students and parents/guardians face, and the lack of representation of teachers and staff of color.
One student member, Sofia (Sally) Salamanca, said that “Most times when students go through unfair situations, they don’t speak up because they don’t feel like teachers are going to listen, or they don’t feel motivated to say something about what makes them uncomfortable because they think no one is going to listen.
“I think is important to have a Student Equity Team so that we can provide that safe space for kids to open up about what bothers them and to help teachers create a safer environment for future students.”
Salamanca was one of the OHS Student Equity Team members who spoke to the Board of Education, most recently back in October along with Estrella Rocha De La Cruz, about the need to do more to promote Hispanic Heritage Month.
Estrella said, “It is essential to have a Student Equity Team at OHS so that the voices of minority students are heard. Yes, there are some teachers at our school trying to help minority students, but if the students don’t speak out, the teachers will not know what needs to be done,” and she emphasized that the Student Equity Team at OHS wants to have the Latinx course available by the next school year.
“I want the world to know that we, the Equity Team at OHS, are very passionate and committed to addressing the racial issues in our community,” she added.
Another Team member, Samantha George, helped to organize an event back in October where people could gather (within COVID-19 safety guidelines) and talk about various social injustices against African American people.
Additional key members of the OHS Student Equity Team, identified by Arnold, are Savannah Clay and Lydia Runyambo.
Savannah had this to say, “The Student Equity Team at OHS is persistent!”
“It may take weeks, months, or years before we can see changes or classes we are fighting for, but we never give up or lose sight of the end goal…
“In unity, our team provides a platform and safe space for students of color and students from other marginalized groups to voice their concerns. We listen, collaborate, and uplift one another, before addressing the changes we desire to see head on.”
Lydia Runyambo had this to say about the Student Equity Team: “Most institutions claim that they strive to build a just and inclusive community, one that is tolerant of all cultures, and different identities. They make mission statements, yet put little to no effort in upholding these principles.
“Having a Student Equity Team at Orange High challenges and addresses the ignorance that takes place at our school and curriculum. It has students, of all backgrounds, fighting for equality by representing those that might not have the courage to do it themselves.
The Equity Team overall gives students the opportunity to create safe spaces for every affinity group. My peers and I recognized that the lack of diversity in our curriculum and staff has manifested a deep-rooted lack of self-worth in students of color at our school.
Having that class (African American Studies), I believe, is the catalyst for change in OHS’s curriculum and its overall atmosphere.
We want to continue giving the Orange County School Board feedback. For our staff, we are still advocating for them to take part in mandatory equity training. The OHS Equity Team is open to new ideas, and we hope to get more people involved.
Hope is never dead, and change has the power to enhance any situation. Every student deserves the chance to feel comfortable, safe, and motivated despite their differences.” Lydia Runyambo
Do you know a staff member, student, community member, school, etc. that is working to advance equity in the district? If so, we want to hear from you! Please email Dr. Dena Keeling, Chief Equity Officer with the subject line: EQUITY WARRIOR! Equity Warriors will be featured each month by the OCS Equity and Communications Departments.