WE LEARNED SOME BIG THINGS
“You’re being told no all the time, and you could get discouraged about life,” said Philadelphia high school student Rhymier McKellar.
Rhymier sounded like a grownup, detailing his rebellious life of “running around being wild, a little reckless, doing all the wrong things.” but he was just a kid and he didn’t have a lot of people in his life saying “yes” to his dreams and ideas.
Young people, especially children of color, experience “no” in so many destructive ways from a society that shortchanges their futures. At the Children First Big Thing 2.0 summit last week, over 125 young people, parents, leaders, and advocates worked together to design new ways to say “yes” to young hopes and opportunities by focusing on three specific things: mental health, teacher diversity, and career and technical education.
Child/Teen Mental Health
Four out of ten Pennsylvania students report feeling sad or depressed most of the time and 12% have attempted to take their own life. It’s unsurprising then that young people have a hard time being optimistic – emotional burdens can weigh down life. “Mental health is primarily the foundation of our education system and needs to be prioritized for,” said Kassandra, a student in the North Penn School District, who attended with her classmates.
Participants were inspired by Alex Briscoe of the California Children’s Trust, who successfully pushed California to overhaul access to mental health services. Statewide reforms cut waiting lists, increased mental health supports in elementary and high schools, and expanded the diversity of authorized mental health providers so more counselors look like the kids they counsel.
Racial and ethnic diversity is also an asset in teachers, not just counselors. Thaddaeus Peay, a young Black man teaching in the Norristown Area School District, shared what it means to connect with his students on a deeper level. “I can tell them, me too. I totally understand where you’re coming from because I went through the same thing. And was it easy? No. But did I persevere? Yes, and you can too.”
Unfortunately, only 5.6% of PA teachers are people of color and so many students of color go their whole lives without having a teacher with similar racial, ethnic, or cultural perspectives.
Career and Technical Education (CTE)
Many young people want to say “yes” to a career in a trade or technical field but fewer than 7% of PA high school students have access to CTE programs. Black and Hispanic student participation is exceptionally small in PA because their low-wealth districts just can’t afford to pay for CTE programs and materials.
Study after study shows that where states and public schools do it right, career-related learning boosts student outcomes. PA Rep. Peter Schweyer, chair of the House Education Committee, addressed the crowd and pledged his support for expanding access to CTE across the Commonwealth.
Since the first Big Thing conference last year, there has been progress at the legislature on these key issues and we’ll continue to advocate for more:
- Governor Shapiro added $100 million per year for five years to the budget to allow schools to add or enhance mental health support.
- The Governor also included $24 million in new funding for CTE/career pathways in the budget.
- Grow Our Own Educators in Pennsylvania legislation (HB 141), that builds pathways for educators to support high-need schools in hard-to-staff geographic areas, passed the full House and awaits a hearing in the Senate Education Committee.
The Big Thing 2.0 brought together passionate advocates to learn, network, and redouble efforts in these key areas. If you were unable to attend but want to be a part of this exciting, long-term, grassroots strategy, please contact Neli Sepulveda at email@example.com.