Student Civic Engagement in Action
Amir Sykes, a junior at Peoria Public Schools’ Manual Academy and a participant in the district’s 21st CCLC program, is one of 21 students on the Illinois State Board of Education’s (ISBE’s) 2019–20 Student Advisory Council. Applying at his principal’s recommendation, Sykes saw participation in the council as a way to elevate issues like equity that were important to him. He also sought to be a role model for his classmates. “I wanted my peers to see me and think that if I can do it anyone can do it,” says Sykes. “I want people to see that if you really put your mind to it and strive for these things, you can achieve your goals.”
The 2019–20 council kicked off with the first of its three meetings September 2019. At this meeting, council members, who are all high school students from across Illinois, identified three priority areas for the school year: student safety, student success, and equity. Council members then formed and joined subgroups around these topics. Group members will research the topic, gather student input, discuss the issue, and draft proposed actions and policies on the topics. They will then present their proposals to the State Board at their final meeting in May 2020.
Sykes says that so far, the experience has been a positive one. “I was excited to work with these students and share ideas with other great minds,” he says. “We came together so we could start thinking of solutions and the way to better the learning environment for all students.” Sykes says that he has been impressed with the diversity of the council, noting that students are from a variety of ethnic, socio-economic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. The council’s student-centered approach allows members to give input and develop leadership skills. “We have an ISBE facilitator…who sits down with us and leads in the right direction, and then we take it from there,” says Sykes, adding that the format and the environment enable all of the council members to voice their opinions.
In addition to participating in the Student Advisory Council, Sykes is active in his local community and participates in Peoria Public Schools’ 21st CCLC program. Because the 21st CCLC partners with the community, Sykes sees the afterschool program as another way for students to explore civic engagement. Sykes offers that “Civic engagement is important because a lot of the times students don’t . . . get the opportunity to see things besides the community they live in.” He adds, “The 21st CCLC program gives us an opportunity to go beyond the walls of where we live to see what other communities and the world are like. It’s very important.”
There have been several benefits to participating in the council. In addition to learning about important education issues, Sykes has had the opportunity to work with other students to discuss and craft solutions to community problems. He has discovered that he has a talent for collaboration and driving groups toward solutions when he is passionate about a topic. He has also begun exploring opportunities for leadership in his community after he graduates high school.