Wisconsin student finds his voice through activism

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By Amanda Litvinov / photo by Racine County Eye

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Gabe Hernandez has a strong voice in his school. Literally, in the sense that he reads the announcements at Racine, Wisconsin’s  Horlick High School over the loudspeaker each morning. But figuratively, too, as a member of the student organization Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES!).

The student-led, social justice organization of around 600 students in 15 schools and universities in Racine and Milwaukee—along with its parent group Voces de la Frontera—helped to successfully push back legislation proposed by Wisconsin lawmakers that threatens immigrant communities.

One such bill would encourage law enforcement to contact ICE during routine interactions. “If that bill were to pass, families like mine will feel so unsafe living here,” says Hernandez.

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High school student and activist Gabe Hernandez

Hernandez attended one of two rallies earlier this year—along with tens of thousands of other Wisconsin citizens—to protest proposals like that one, which soon after stalled in the state senate.

“All that activism played a role in killing that bill,” Hernandez says. “We really made people think about how it would affect the entire state.”

YES! chapters also organize around issues affecting their district or their school.

In February, Hernandez and dozens of other students organized a “walk-in,” an action through which students, educators and parents gather at the school in the morning and enter the building together (pictured above).

The event was part of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools’ National Day of Action, in which 800 schools in 30 cities hosted walk-ins, each focused on a local issue.

“We had a clear message that day,” says Hernandez. “We wanted our district to know that we are deeply concerned about their block schedule proposal, and we demand a stop to any rush decisions.”

Students and educators share concerns about the proposal to convert the current eight-period schedule to four much longer periods, and rotate classes every other day.

First, there is no plan to accommodate special needs students who would be challenged by the 90-minute class periods. And teachers say they haven’t been given appropriate time to alter their instruction to work in a block schedule format, which is generally implemented over two years, not one.

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Racine students speak up together through YES!

“And electives like art and music aren’t accounted for in the plan, so they might be at risk of being cut altogether,” Hernandez explains.

Despite the student actions and the protests of the Racine Education Association regarding the implementation timeline, the district has decided to enact the block schedule plan for the 2016-2017 school year.

Still, students are hopeful that the district will have their concerns in mind as they make these fundamental changes to the school day. And Gabe Hernandez hopes that no matter what happens, students continue to speak up.

“I will graduate this spring and go to college,” says Hernandez. “But other students will pick up the fight—just as we did from the students who came before us—and make their school a better place.”

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