• Student panel brings important voices to Leadership Institute

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    Members of the student panel (from left) Cody Sullivan, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, Akili Kelekele, Hilario Gonzalez, Ana Wu and Eilish. (Photo by Leif Sjoquist)

    Teachers who can unlock students’ passion. Guidance in preparing for an unknown future. Smaller class sizes. Recognition of students’ lives beyond school. And free coffee.

    Those were some of the recommendations offered Thursday by a five-member panel of current and former Portland Public Students during a one-hour forum that provided an inspiring kickoff to Day 2 of PPS’s Leadership Institute at Roosevelt High School.

    Before an audience of PPS leaders in the Roosevelt theater, panel members shared stories of their varied backgrounds and how they have influenced the way they see and experience education.

    Akili Kelekele, a senior at Lincoln High School, spoke about the importance of teachers making strong connections to students, to help them channel their ambitions to become robust and productive members of society.

    “Teachers really unpack those passions for students,” he said.

    The panel offered a diverse group of voices, including Akili, who is active in Lincoln’s Black Student Union and Brothers of Color organizations and will serve as co-class president. He was joined by fellow Lincoln student Hilario Gonzalez, a sophomore and budding journalist who wants to tell people’s stories through multiple mediums; and another sophomore, Eilish Koch, who has found a comforting spot in the Queer Straight Alliance at Roosevelt.

    Also on the panel were two PPS graduates in Cody Sullivan, a 2014 graduate of Grant High School, who this year became the first person in Oregon with Down Syndrome to graduate from a four-year college (Concordia); and Ana Wu, a 2015 Franklin High graduate who was born in China and lived in Mexico before moving to Portland in 2008, when she could not speak English.

    Guided by Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero, who served as moderator, panel members talked about the backgrounds that inform everything about their educational experience.

    Ana, for example, talked about the challenge of coming to PPS while trying to learn English, and the comfort she found from school staff, including the principal at Marysville who welcomed her on her first day, and an ESL teacher who challenged her to embrace writing.

    The impact educators made on Ana’s life was so strong, she is enrolled in the bilingual educators program at Portland State, a collaborative effort with PPS to strengthen the district’s roster of bilingual teachers.

    “I really want to inspire students who, English might not be their first language,” Ana said. “I hopefully can change a student’s life.”

    As a student who identifies as queer, Eilish worried about what high school would be like. She found comfort in Roosevelt’s Queer Straight Alliance, giving her a room where she could feel safe and supported during her freshman year.

    “Every week, I could go to that room and know that there was nothing but love,” she said. “It was a really great experience.”

    Hilario shared his experience of attending Ainsworth Elementary School and West Sylvan Middle School before Lincoln and being one of the few brown faces in class. “There’s not that much diversity, and I don’t see myself mirrored in my classes at all,” he said.

    But as he grew, Hilario has been able to find his voice, including the opportunity to write an essay that was posted by OregonLive. He talked about how important it was for teachers to help students find and develop things they care about.

    “Finding your passion is super important,” he said. “They can prepare a student not only for what they want to do, but also what they might have to go through in the future.”

    Cody shared the vast variety of classes and activities he immersed himself into, including sports, the choir and developing strong interest in the Civil War in history classes. An important lesson he learned: “To never give up,” he said.

    Superintendent Guerrero asked the panelists for closing statements, and Eilish added some levity by noting that teenage bodies are built to grow tired later, and suggested a later start to the school day. She noted that she hadn’t planned on becoming a coffee drinker until she hit adulthood, but had to start a java habit as a freshman.

    “We should get free coffee!” she said.

    The forum provided a different kind of wakeup call, one for PPS educators to always listen to the students they teach. Dani Ledezma, PPS’s newly-hired Special Advisor to the Superintendent on Equity and Social Justice, summed it up in a pre-panel speech:

    “As professionals working in education, we know we’re at our best when we listen to student voices, listen to student perspectives.”