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The Rise and Fall of a Little Voice



By Ben Joravsky

It took Madeline Halperin-Robinson almost half a year to overcome her inhibitions and speak up at a school board meeting. But she has a lot more to say.

"There's so much I want to tell the board--about testing, security, metal detectors--everything," says Halperin-Robinson, the board's student member this year. "[Schools CEO] Paul Vallas and the board have to do a better job of listening to students and teachers. But we have to speak up, because they're not going to ask us what we think. I learned that's not how it works."

Halperin-Robinson, a graduating senior from Whitney Young, was timid until she transferred to Young for its seventh- and eighth-grade magnet program. "I never spoke. I never wanted to order in restaurants," she says. "Then I came here and made friends right away. It was pretty easy, even for me, because everyone was in the same boat. Everyone was new and seeking out friends."

Over the years her friendships evolved. "It's pretty complicated how things are at Young," she says. "There are different groups. They're not negative cliques--at least I don't think so. You just sort of hang out with your friends. And your friends hang out with their friends. And the circle grows.

"There were about 50 kids in my larger group. Everyone's involved in everyone else's lives. We're sort of the hippie crowd. We wear flowers in our hair, and sandals. On weekends we hang out at coffee shops and during the weekday we'll hang out on the lawn outside of school. We throw Frisbees and just sit and talk. I'm going to really miss them."

They were the sort of students who challenged authority, she says. "Madeline's the most dedicated person I know--we talked about a lot of school issues all the time, like the security guards," says Zahid Khalil, another graduating senior. "They were hassling us. Like they'd come up to us off campus and take our cigarettes. I know we're not supposed to smoke in school. But this is off campus."

They also talked about larger issues, says Khalil. "I was just thinking about this the other day when I was thinking about Ms. Baker, my Spanish teacher, who's the greatest teacher I ever had--she totally cares about what's going on. But they're not paying her enough. They're not paying any teachers enough. They say it's so important to have the best teachers preparing kids for the future, but they don't pay them hardly anything, at least compared to what businessmen get. We say money doesn't really matter and we're only doing it for the kids. But come on, you know money does matter. You gotta live. It really sucks. Who in their right mind is gonna want to teach? That's why we have a lot of retarded and wacky teachers. But seriously, life's unfair and we shouldn't tolerate it. We've got to do something.

"Madeline and I talked about stuff like this. Like why kids aren't being taught well. It seems like they're just creating a basic minimum-wage workforce to go out and do mindless jobs and accept what's being done to them. We would talk about these things for hours. We wanted to do something about it."

Last September, at the start of their senior year, they formed a student union as an alternative to the student council. "The student council's a little more traditional--they decide things like the theme for homecoming," says Halperin-Robinson. "We wanted to deal with issues of student rights. We had an assembly, for instance, where we brought in someone from the ACLU to talk about student rights."

In October Halperin-Robinson decided to run for the student slot on the school board, though technically she was ineligible. "It's supposed to be for student council members," she explains. "I did get a call from the [central office] and they said I couldn't run. But I said I'm on the student union and that's like a student council. They said OK.

"The way it works is that we're elected by student councils from all the high schools. There were about ten candidates. I filled out the forms and wrote answers to questions, like what do I want to accomplish on the board. I didn't think I would win. I didn't even get to vote for myself because I'm not on the student council. I sort of forgot about it until I got a call from the board saying I had won."

Her first meeting was in November. "I got this call from the board asking me if I needed a ride," she says. "I said sure, and they sent over a driver--he picked me up at Young at four and drove me home after the meeting. After that they sent one for every meeting. It was always a different driver. Sometimes they talked, sometimes they didn't. Sometimes they played music I can't stand, like smooth jazz. It's sort of weird having a driver but I got used to it."

She soon discovered that her position was ceremonial; student board members can't vote or attend closed-door sessions. "At first I didn't say a word. I don't think they expected me to talk. There's no time designated for a student report. I suppose I could have just sat there in silence all year long.

"In general I was disappointed at how lightly they took public comments. There are some nutty people who want to speak, but a lot of the people have valid concerns that should be listened to. During closed sessions I'd eat dinner or do my homework. They could be in closed session for hours talking about personnel matters or whatever they talk about. Sometimes I went home before they came out."

Her board position did bring her access, something she discovered after Vallas and Mayor Daley castigated Young officials in March as arrogant for opposing metal detectors at school entrances. "I called Vallas to speak to him about this and his secretary made me an appointment for the next day--I was very surprised it was that easy," says Halperin-Robinson. "I went with Brienne Callihan, another student, and Vallas was prepared for us. He had a list of all the incidents where they had found guns in a school. He listened to us. We were mad at his quote in the papers. We didn't think it was arrogant to say you feel safe in your school and you don't want metal detectors. Vallas said he wasn't calling the students arrogant--he was calling Young's administrators arrogant. Whatever, the metal detectors stayed."

In April she was motivated to speak up about testing. "We're given three standardized tests a year--a state test, a national test, and a city test," she says. Several Young juniors had protested by intentionally doing poorly on the state test. "I respected those students for taking a stand. I felt I had to let the board know my position."

Her big moment came near the end of the public-comment portion of the meeting. "I didn't know how to do it--there's no protocol for these things as far as I could tell. I just sort of said, 'I have something to add.' I didn't think anyone noticed. Then Avis LaVelle [another board member] said, 'The student member has something to say.' That's when I started talking. I told them the tests take valuable time from the teachers. I said that it makes no sense to put so much emphasis on these tests. They're supposed to tell how much we know, but if we spend all our time preparing for them all we've learned is how to take them. What good is that? What does that prove? Why are we forcing teachers to spend so much valuable class time on this stuff? If it's all standardized, how many standards can you have? The idea of standardized thought is pretty frightening, at least to me. If you have to give all these tests, why not combine some?

"They didn't really have a reaction. I think they might have been surprised to hear my voice. They didn't make any commitment [to combining tests]. They just sort of said, 'Well, thanks for your comments.' Then they moved on to the next business."

And what does she think she accomplished during her term on the board? "I don't know, it's sort of disappointing. They still have the tests and the metal detectors. I don't know why they have the student member. They don't really listen to us. At the last meeting Avis said, 'This is Madeline's last meeting. Thanks for coming. You were the first student board member to say anything.' I said, 'It's hard to speak up. It's intimidating. I wish you were a little more welcoming to student opinion.'"

In the fall she'll head off for the University of Missouri, where she'll major in either political science or journalism. "I think the board's done really well at scrounging up money for the schools," she says. "I just wish they had more teachers and students involved in decision making. It's disheartening to think that they don't care about our opinions. If this is their attitude, why do they even get involved in the schools?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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