May 1, 2019

PHS Students, Alumni Give Voice to Concerns At “See Me, Hear Me”

“SEE ME, HEAR ME”: A panel of Princeton High School (PHS) alumni led off the proceedings at PHS Saturday at the third annual “See Me, Hear Me” conference, hosted by the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) and Pride, Unity, Leadership, Sisterhood, Esteem (PULSE), giving students an opportunity to use their voices to discuss and inform others of issues that are important to them. Panelists, with Social Worker and MSAN/PULSE Advisor Lenora Keel, center, were, from left, PHS graduates Breana Newton, Taariq Parker, Jackie Adebayo, and Juan Polanco. (Photo by Jennifer Cohan)

By Donald Gilpin

For several hours at Princeton High School last Saturday, April 27, students — current and past — gave voice to their thoughts, feelings, and concerns while teachers, parents, administrators, and other adults listened at the third annual “See Me, Hear Me” conference, titled “The Power of the Student Voice; Our Stories, Our Voices.”

Hosted by the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) and Pride, Unity, Leadership, Sisterhood, Esteem (PULSE), under the guidance of Social Worker and Student and Family Services Coordinator Lenora Keel, the conference brought together about 50 participants for a day of discussions on current topics that impact students in this district.

“This was intended to be about the students’ voices, to have adults sit and listen to what the students have to say,” said Keel. “We felt the power of the students. It was their voices and their stories. This provided a strong picture of what it’s like to be a minority student at Princeton High School. Adults need to listen more.”

In written remarks on the conference, Keel added, “The students worked together to further their agenda of understanding, respecting, and uplifting persons in all ethnic, cultural, and gender groups. Some of the topics included the importance of the student voice as it relates to social justice, student/teacher relationships, implicit bias, and micro/macro aggressions faced on a daily basis by many of these students.”

A panel of four PHS graduates — Breana Newton, class of 2008; Taariq Parker, class of 2010; Jackie Adebayo, class of 2013; and Juan Polanco, class of 2013 — all now in their 20s, opened the conference discussing their recollections of life at PHS and their experiences since. 

Newton described her unhappiness at PHS and her experience of being discriminated against. Parker talked about the continuation of racist incidents and unjust punishments at PHS and cited the need for stronger support systems for minority students. He also mentioned the importance of finding a champion in your life. Polanco pointed out emotional difficulties in transitioning to college and the importance of health services. 

“The student panelists were awesome,” Keel observed.

The panel discussion was followed by Student Voice presentations by current MSAN students, who had interviewed a wide range of PHS students and presented, with PowerPoint, their thoughts on many different subjects.

Some students praised the diversity at PHS and the efforts of teachers and administrators to engage the students and listen. One student who was interviewed praised the wealth of opportunities at PHS, “We have a club for everything in this school,” but stated, “we need to have more face-to-face, one-on-one conversations [about race], rather than a big assembly where one person is speaking to 300 or 400 students at a time.”

Another student described a positive relationship with his counselor and an appreciation of the variety of different groups and activities at PHS, but claimed that the social environment was “toxic,” with too much pressure and not enough help from guidance counselors and teachers.

A tenth-grade girl observed, “Everybody is quick to assume things about others based on the way they look or the way they talk, or the things that they believe, or the level of education. I feel like everybody is so judgmental in so many ways. It’s not just sexism, classicism, and racism. It’s so many different things. People in Princeton don’t look to the outside world. We live in this bubble of privilege, but not every single part of Princeton has a lot of money.”

One junior boy expressed the wish that “there was a stronger relationship between Hispanic and American students,” but noted, “in Princeton I’ve always been treated with respect. In many other places there’s more discrimination and here that isn’t the case for me.”

A senior boy stated, “I would like to work on encouraging more black students to take advanced classes, because I tend to be alone for the most part in them. I feel like black students should be informed about the types of courses available to them. Many kids aren’t told they can take these classes and they have to find out by themselves, and at this point it’s too late.”

A John Witherspoon Middle School parent, Jennifer Cohan, who attended the session observed, “‘See Me, Hear Me’ should be heard beyond the walls of PHS on a weekend; it needs to be known by all members of our community. Harm reduction to black and Latinx families needs to be an urgent priority, not only for Princeton Public Schools, but for my fellow white families.”

Among the listeners in attendance Saturday were several Board of Education members and a number of high school administrators and teachers. 

“The conference gave voice to our students at our school,” said Keel. ”I felt like a proud mother hen.”