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Student Engagement


There’s a common myth that young people are apathetic or uninterested in being engaged in their schools and communities. However, decades of experience engaging youth at Californians for Justice prove this myth is false and harmful to the future of our country. Particularly in communities of color, young people don’t have the opportunities or support to engage in decisions that affect them, to find their voice, to speak up and advocate for themselves and others. Without an intentional focus on youth empowerment, we will continue to see policies that benefit corporate interests and schools that miss the mark of what low income students of color need, furthering inequality for generations to come.

But there is hope and opportunity for significant change. California’s education system is poised to become a place where youth--6.2 million of them--are first activated to use their voice and realize the power they have to improve their lives and the conditions around them. In recent years, CFJ and our allies have helped to win the right for youth to have a voice in district budget decisions, register to vote on campus as early as age 16, be a voting school board member, and lead school improvement committees. Research shows that when young people are empowered to use their voices and classroom experiences to improve their schools, academic achievement improves for everyone. These young leaders are also more likely to graduate from high school and go on to college.

“I know what is wrong with my schools and that I want to change it for my peers. People say that youth never want to be involved. The truth is that youth like me do want to be involved but oftentimes, adults aren’t listening. We’ve been advocating for a culture of equal partnership between youth and adults knowing that is the only way we can be successful. We want to inspire more people about this impossible idea--that students working together with adults actually unites people more in accomplishing our goals.”

– Naudika Williams, CFJ Oakland Alum

Why Student Engagement Matters

Young people have the most at stake in our education system--their futures and the future of their families are on the line. Yet young people in California continue to have very different educational experiences based on their race and zipcode. Students of color are disproportionately represented in suspensions, special education, and foster care, but strategies to address achievement, opportunity and belief gaps are typically uninformed by students. Students feel disempowered and reduced to academic index scores and drop out percentages.

By seeing young people as experts on their educational experiences we can shift school culture, improve academic outcomes, and develop lifelong community and civic leaders. This starts by ensuring that every student, especially the voices and experiences of low-income students of color are heard, valued, and reflected in the continuous improvement of their schools.

“In our education system, our voices, our faces have gone unheard, unseen. This is how it feels to be seen as an index score, a drop out percentage, a number.”

– Jalissa Saunders, CFJ Long Beach Alum

The Facts

  1. Only 4 in 10 educators say the majority of students at their schools are highly engaged and motivated. Engagement levels for specific groups of students vary considerably around the national average.
  2. Teachers and school-level administrators surveyed identified student engagement and motivation as the most important driver of student achievement, ranking higher than teacher quality and a range of other influences examined.
  3. Educators find a variety of strategies effective for motivating students, including using interactive and hands-on activities and building relationships with students.

Our Vision

When it comes to student engagement in California schools, we’ve made progress in centering the powerful and unique perspectives that students bring to education. However, California must continue to raise the bar of what real student engagement looks like and do more to center the voices of students of color and other marginalized students.

Improved learning and life success happens when students and school staff are leading together to uplift the most impacted students in our education system. Together we can ensure that all students are heard, valued, and reflected in their educational experience; where their experiences and feedback become the real indicator & measurement in improving schools. Where we create an education system that is designed to create roles for students in the design, training, and evaluation of programs and practices aimed to support their path for learning and success. Where education leaders, local and statewide policy makers understand that the best thing we can do for our state is to invest in a public education system committed to building a culture of student engagement in our schools.

Real engagement happens in our schools when our education system feels deeply accountable to the relationships it holds with students and families of color. When relationships are centered in mutual trust and support. Real engagement happens when conflict and struggle are seen as an opportunity to deepen relationships, not discard them. When race is not simply checked on a form, but is embraced as the lens through which we must see and engage our students and families.  When students and adults lead together to improve our schools.

When we do this we develop generations of students who are deeply invested in their schools and communities as lifelong learners. As engaged community members they understand that a high quality public education is the surest path to generational prosperity and successful future where all Californians benefit.


“This fight for our lives goes beyond students in schools. Young people of color - marginalized communities have experienced violence in their schools and communities for years, and don’t get as much attention. But we have a real opportunity in this moment to emphasize the issues youth of color have experienced for decades.”

– Kelly Chinchilla, CFJ Long Beach Alum

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