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At Lowell High, Students Have a Voice

February 10, 2019
Members of Lowell High's Student Voice group, including standing from left, Neyder Fernandez, Patricia Rose Prout, Jaeda Turner and Shaveen Gachau, are featured at a "Leaders for Increasing Voice in Education" meeting hosted by the Great Schools Partnership and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Seated, from left, are Melissa Anaya of Lawrence High Learning Center, LHLC staffer Jessica Edwards, and Zoe Rosa and Elvis Acosta, both LHLC students. Watch video at lowellsun.com. SUN photos /Julia Malakie Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

LOWELL -- Until it happened to a classmate, it was hard to imagine.

“I had class with her,” said Jaeda Turner, a sophomore at Lowell High School. “So for me it was like when you hear those things on the news you don’t think it’s real, but when it’s a person you sit next (to) in class. ...”

For a brief moment, she paused.

Turner was a classmate Anna Aslanian, a Lowell High School student who took her own life last fall.

Today, Turner is one of the members of Student Voice, a group of students at the school, who among other initiatives, are working to address mental health.

Another member, Neyder Fernandez said when he heard about Anna’s passing “a lot of my friends and I took that to heart.”

“So we decided to really focus on mental health and helping people get the treatment that they need,” said Fernandez, a senior at Lowell High.

Head of School Marianne Busteed started Student Voice at the beginning of this school year, following discussions last June with students on what the group should entail. The group is similar to one that existed at her previous job at Nashua High School North, and was further developed for Lowell through the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Unlike student government, which also exists at the high school, members are not elected by the student body. They submit applications to school administrators, who select about 10 from each grade based on good attendance and why they want to get involved, according to Busteed.

This past fall Busteed said she hoped to get 40 applications. She received 120.

“I thought, ’Wow. We have a need,” she said. “That many students want to be a part of this.”

The group accepted about 42 applicants and started meeting at least monthly.

It started by setting ground rules for civil conversation, said Shaveen Gachua, a junior. She provided an overview of the group to regional educators attending a workshop on community and student involvement at the high school on Thursday.

Over the course of several meetings the members got to know each other and developed a list of issues they wanted to address, she said. At their Jan. 9 meeting, Gachua said they selected three topics to focus on and broke off into subcommittees.

Almost half the group, about 17 people, joined the sub-group focusing on mental health, according to Fernandez.

Though still in the early stages, Fernandez said they have discussed ways to better connect students to counselors and social workers. They have also floated getting mental-health support training for teachers or even training for students for peer-to-peer mentorship.

“We want to make (talking about this) more mainstream, so people don’t have to be in the shadows,” he said.

Another subcommittee is addressing drinking fountains at the school. Freshman Patricia Rose Prout said the high school has only two bubblers with filtered water.

“Although there are many other water fountains around the school, they get trashed,” she said. “The water there is like dirty and warm and people just generally don’t go to them.”

Her group said the district could provide free water bottles to students, which she estimates would cost almost $150,000 annually. She said the more cost effective move would be to install three new vandalism-proof drinking fountains for $4,364, including installation.

This subcommittee also wants to add more vegetarian options to the school menu and address the school’s “rodent infestation” by getting donors to pay to plug holes.

Junior George Gikas discussed a subcommittee which is working to clarify grade point averages to students. Many of his classmates do not understand how these are calculated and what they mean for applying to college, he said.

The group also discussed the recent successful student push to overturn a ban on cultural head coverings. The School Committee voted to revise the dress code policy district-wide last month after students showed a video where they discussed historical and cultural contexts as part of a plea to lift the ban.

The group expects to continue meeting at least once a month and attend an all-day leadership workshop on Feb. 28.

Busteed said in January the administration also launched a Staff Voice group, where teachers and other employees can discuss issues and work towards solutions.

“What is interesting is the staff voice group has now identified their priorities and one of their priorities is staff dress code,” said Andi Summers of the Great Schools Partnership, which has worked on involvement initiatives in Lowell alongside Project LEARN.

“We’re hoping (staff) can learn from the students how to advocate for themselves and change their own dress code, which is going to be -- I think, I hope -- empowering for the students,” she said.

Acting Superintendent Jeannine Durkin stopped members of the Student Voice group after their presentation to educators on Thursday to suggest a few next steps.

She praised their involvement, especially student work to revise the dress code.

“The partnership we’ve had with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation and Project LEARN speaks to who we are as a district and community as a whole,” she wrote in a statement.

“We pride ourselves on being a diverse community that embraces all learners, but sometimes those voices from our schools and community aren’t always heard. The work we’ve been able to accomplish through these valuable partnerships over the past two years has empowered and helped give voice to our families and now our students and staff.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.

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