Dear Secretary Cardona: past, present, and future from the eyes of a high school student leader

By Syd Fryer


Dear Secretary Cardona, 


It has been roughly seven months since Our Turn student leaders from across the country met with members of your team to review Our Turn’s Student Agenda, a student-authored document that outlines demands generated by real students, in real schools, truly affected by the pandemic and other obstacles. It was an incredibly productive space for thoughtful discussion around a new era of federal education policy -- and yet, there is still so much work to be done across many areas. 


The agenda features five key pillars: Nothing About Us, Without Us. Learning Centered on Justice. Prioritize Our Mental Health. Our Schools, Our Culture. Fully Invest in Our Futures. 


Here we outline the progress our country has made around these demands, but acknowledge there is room to go further. We hope to establish an ongoing, long-term relationship with the Department of Education to authentically elevate youth voices in education policy, from elevating experiences to co-designing solutions to ensuring collective accountability. Here’s how and why we’d like to do it: 


Slow broadband and lack of access to devices have contributed to learning loss exacerbated by the pandemic, but the federal government has taken action to close the gap. The landmark, 1.2 trillion dollar infrastructure bill recently passed includes 65 million dollars devoted to improving broadband access. The legislation provides critical funding for expanding tech literacy and access to broadband in rural and low income areas, narrowing the digital divide and Fully Investing in Our Futures. 


That said, the bill leaves it up to state governments to decide who gets the broadband funding. Rather, it should earmark a portion specifically for education and communities of color -- developing 1:1 device programs, specific digital literacy programs for families, and weekly surveys that gauge students’ comfort level with digital resources. While many students have gone back in person, assignments and study materials remain largely online, a sign of education's changing landscape towards digital pedagogy. 


Students being back in classrooms is great for making connections and better retaining content -- but the mental health struggles students face have persisted through the pandemic. Just last month, UNC-Chapel Hill canceled classes to give students a “wellness day” in the wake of two suicide investigations on campus. It is clear that students are susceptible as ever to the increasing mental health struggles since the start of the pandemic. We call on the Department of Education to Prioritize Our Mental Health and make school environments more healthy, welcoming, and equitable for all. 


Adults in power can continue to throw money at our country’s youth mental health crisis, or they can set up a space for constructive student feedback that will direct funds where they need to go: the students themselves. 


Culturally inclusive curriculum is the basis of healthy student development and one of our most critical demands. While the struggles brought by the pandemic have put issues like this on the back burner, it is time to fully recognize and act on the importance of curriculum that serves the students learning it. Textbooks, activities, and materials must reflect the students sitting in desks, not centuries-old inaccuracies that tend to whitewash reality. 


There remains a nationwide, bipartisan demand for accurate, culturally inclusive history education that better serves all students. Now more than ever, students are aware and motivated by the injustices that are so blatantly reinforced in their curriculum -- and they want to fight it. Our Turn has been on the front lines of these efforts by fighting for culturally inclusive pedagogy in Los Angeles and leading advocacy and awareness campaigns. 


California has taken a crucial first step in becoming the first state with an ethnic studies curriculum requirement for graduation. The approved curriculum is strong in that it draws attention to four ethnic groups in California that have been historically overlooked and marginalized. Other states and districts can follow suit by incorporating curricula that reflects the diversity of the students in their community. Our Turn’s Our Schools, Our Culture demand calls for a holistic approach to growing and working with students that caters to their school and community-specific needs.


One of our Student Agenda’s core demands and one of the keys to effective student engagement is incorporating student feedback. Monumental action was taken this year when school districts were required to gather community feedback in the distribution of ESSER funds. 


States like Rhode Island and Colorado showed how student input can effectively be incorporated into the ESSER fund allocation. Rhode Island established a task force of 36 expert stakeholders -- parents, state and local leaders, the Rhode Island Student Advisory Council, Rhode Island educators of color committee -- to gather a diverse set of feedback that could best dictate the strategic direction of pathways and funding in the state. Colorado conducted focus groups and created a stakeholder survey whose findings were summarized in a document for the State Board of Education. In both states, we are working with education leaders to ensure funds are invested in line with student demands, and we hope to expand similar student-adult partnerships across the country.


The requirement to gather stakeholder input was initially a very promising idea with the potential to capitalize on a crucial turning point in education by effectively gathering student feedback. While it was executed well in some states, others fell short because of a lack of transparency and actual student engagement, leading to mixed to poor results. The concept has the opportunity to change the way funds are distributed and received to students, if executed properly by leveraging the right kinds of student engagement at the state level. 


Our Turn appreciates the steps that have been taken to make education more equitable and centered on Black, Indigenous, and Students of Color. The key to further advancement is meeting engaged students where they are. Fortunately for the DOE, Our Turn has a national base of students who are hungry for their voices and suggestions to be heard, especially in these ways: 


  • In the spirit of Nothing About Us, Without Us, Our Turn students, you, and key members of your staff should hold a public student forum -- a collaboration of key changemakers in the education system to discuss the issues we find most pressing. 
  • Establish an ongoing working group and relationship with DOE officials to incorporate youth of color into vital conversations surrounding history textbooks and other aspects of pedagogy that have underserved students for far too long, making our education stronger.
  • Instate a joint student-DOE mental health task force aimed at implementing youth voices in mental health policy. 
  • It is on the federal government to ensure that students do not fall behind because of a misappropriation of broadband funds; schools should receive specialized funding to ensure equal access to technology in classrooms. 


We eagerly await your response and look forward to making transformative change, together. 


Syd Fryer, on behalf of Our Turn 


About Syd Fryer: 

Syd is a high school senior based in Charlotte, North Carolina. She began as a student organizer for Our Turn’s North Carolina coalition organizing around tuition equity for NC students regardless of citizenship status. There, she met with legislators and wrote legislation to make higher education accessible and affordable for all. In March 2021, she was part of a group of Our Turn students who met with policy officials from the Department of Education, elevating the Student Agenda. She now serves as an Executive Fellow, strategically promoting the Student Agenda and mobilizing students across the country.