Andrew Brennen Believes Education Reform Begins With a Simple Question

The UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore has been traveling the country asking students, “What would you change about your school?”

Andrew Brennen talks with a student, while on his tour of America with an organization called Student Voice. (Andrew Brennen)
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While many of his peers at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were spending their spring studying for exams and cheering at basketball games, sophomore Andrew Brennen has been traveling across the United States as the national field director for Student Voice, an organization dedicated to bringing students into the discussion about education reform.

Brennen, who is studying political science and strategic communication, is currently on a year’s leave from school. Involved in education reform since high school, his experience earned him his gig with Student Voices. Since January, he has gone from the rural South to the metropolises of California, and plenty of places in between, talking to students about what they’d like to change about their educational experiences and how they think they could make those changes happen. He has visited all types of schools—public, private, charter—focusing especially on schools with underserved populations, and spoken to students from elementary school through high school. We talked to Brennen, 20, about the present and future of American education, as seen by our country’s students.

How did you get involved in education reform?

My junior year of high school in Lexington, Kentucky is when I started getting involved in education policy advocacy. It was because I was using textbooks in class that were older than me. Kentucky had not increased its investment in [areas of] education since before the recession. So a group of students and I got involved in a nonprofit in Kentucky, the Pritchard Committee for Academic Excellence, and we engaged in advocacy with the state legislature trying to fight for increased funding. We’ve now been involved in the past three legislation sessions in Kentucky.

Tell us about your current work.

I’m involved in two organizations trying to fuel the mission that, instead of being treated as passive consumers, students are engaged as partners. The first is with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a student voice team I co-founded my junior year [of high school] that is now 100 strong across Kentucky, with students from middle school through college. The second organization is Student Voice, which is a national organization started about four years ago. Their mission is to elevate and amplify student voices. They started this by curating a social media conversation, because our generation does a lot of organizing around social media. Now we’re trying to move from social media into classrooms and communities across the country.

[Starting] in January, I took a year off of school and have been traveling across the country to every corner of America, talking to students about their education experience. In schools, students are asked to think critically about everything from history to calculus, but rarely are they asked to think critically about school itself.

How do you engage with the students, and what sorts of things do students tell you about how they’d like to see their schools changed?

My favorite thing is round table discussions with a group of 10 to 15 students. Students are never asked these kinds of questions, so by the end of my conversations with students they’re saying some pretty remarkable things.

There’s often a disconnect between teachers and students. A student told me that every single day she has to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a bus across town to make it to school. One day she wasn't able to make it, and she missed a test. Her teacher told her ‘Why don’t you just come in earlier?’ The student said ‘I can’t, there’s no way of getting to school earlier.’ The teacher said, ‘Just work something out.’ In one rural Kentucky school, we asked students ‘what’s the most important issue in your school?’ Something like 280 out of 800 students responded with some form of bullying as being the most important issue. We asked teachers the same questions, and not a single teacher mentioned bullying.

One thing students [in underserved communities] have told me is they wish they had teachers that look like them. They grow up in these communities where many around them are in jail, or not graduated from college or high school. They don’t have role models, and then they go to school and look to their teachers, but rarely do they share the same experiences as them. 

What sorts of ideas have you and the students come up with for fixing this disconnect?

We’ve looked at school governance structures, which are dominated by adults in every sense of the word, and we’ve made the case that these school governance structures should be integrated. Maybe these students that are in school 35 hours a week should be on the school board, or helping make policies.

In San Francisco, we met a group of students who are working to lower the voting age both for school district elections and local elections, and they have some very valid reasons for doing so. There’s a student group in Houston that’s been fighting for increased investment in education; they wrote an amicus brief to the Texas Supreme Court arguing why the current funding structure is unconstitutional. They lost, but they’re bringing that conversation.

What’s a big educational problem you’ve seen an innovative solution for?

We talk to students all the time about how they want to go to college, they want to pursue higher education, they have every intention. Yet we know that the number of students who are actually matriculating is nowhere near that. So figuring out how to move students from saying ‘I want to go to college’ to actually making it to college is a hard task.

I’ve been to some remarkable schools [working to solve this problem]. I went to a charter school in Los Angeles, California called Environmental Charter School where one of the graduation requirements is that every student be accepted into a college. It’s just setting the expectation from the beginning that this is what you’re going to accomplish by being here. They don’t beat around the bush either. They’re having these students target the top schools. I think they’re really doing great work. There’s a school in Kentucky that’s been partnering with an organization called 55,000 Degrees, and they’ve really been focused on what happens over the summer when a student is accepted and when they show up on campus. Because we lose a lot of students during that time. They engage with students to make sure they make it.

What’s an interesting way you’ve seen technology help overcome issues in education?

In some states, snow days play a huge role in students’ lives. They can be out of school for almost a month. They’re starting to now figure out ways to use technology so that even when students are out of school they’re still learning. That’s a really obvious thing, but I think it’s major because it means that these students are no longer a month behind everyone.

You’ll be returning to school in early 2017. What are you plans for after you graduate?

I hope to graduate! I know that UNC-Chapel Hill admits less than 150 black men [each year], and less than half of them graduate, so I hope I’m on the right side of those statistics. I’m really into the intersection between politics and public policy, so I hope to do something in that space, whether it’s advocacy or working on some political campaign. I like to really get up close and personal with the legislative process. 

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