One day in the English Language advisory group she leads at Manchester West High School, Liz Kirwan asked her students to brainstorm the differences between schools in their home countries and their current school. Some had come here from refugee camps or developing countries with few resources. By comparison, their new school was impressive.
“But then we asked them to delve a little deeper,” Kirwan said.
Soon, the students — who come from countries including Tanzania, Mexico, Nepal, and Egypt — started talking about how their sports teams can’t compete at the same level as other schools their size, how they can’t find food they like at lunch, how the limited course options affect their future plans.
“One of the kids said it really well. He said, ‘I want to cry when I hear about what other schools have,’” Kirwan said.
Kirwan and her student teacher, Angelina Gillespie, decided more people should hear what her students had to say. They helped them write letters to the Commission to Study School Funding, which were then read aloud at the Commission’s Youth Voice comment period on Oct. 7. A few of the students attended the virtual comment period, along with Kirwan and Gillespie, and read their own letters:
“This school needs to have the equality the other schools have,” Ederlin Suazo Rojas, a 10th grader from the Dominican Republic told the Commission. “We need more resources. … I ask if they will give money for the things we need to change at my school.”
“We also need more activities and books in different languages … and better food,” Fady Habib, a 10th grader from Egypt, told the Commission. “Please give us more equality funding.”
Kirwan is in her eighth year of teaching at Manchester West, where about 55% of the 780 students qualify for free or reduced price lunch. In that time she’s become increasingly aware of inequities that affect the lives of EL students, who make up about 15% of the student body in the district.
She remembers one student from Iraq who was placed in a low level math class largely because of his English proficiency level when he first enrolled. Three years later, he applied to the computer science program at UNH and was declined because he didn’t have a strong enough background in math. “He was crushed,” Kirwan said. “The university would not accept him because he was in an education system that put him on an inappropriate path. … It’s the inequities that exist in the system that place our students on a different trajectory.”
In spite of the obstacles, Kirwan encourages her students to set ambitious goals. In a recent class, on Google Meet, they talked about their future plans: to graduate with honors, attend university, go to medical school, travel the world.
“I want to be a caseworker. I want to help some people. Help some homeless,” said Helene Sarah, a 10th grader from Burundi.
“My goal is to learn English and study cinema to be an actor because I like theater, and make my family proud of me,” Fady wrote in the group chat.
By helping her students share their feelings with the Commission, Kirwan hopes to show them their voices can make a difference.
“I found very early in my teaching how important it was to engage students with these authentic experiences, and to give them experiences that can have a real return,” she said.
The Commission to Study School Funding has been actively seeking input from different demographics as it analyzes the current school funding system and develops recommendations for the coming Legislative session. The students’ stories seemed to have an impact.
“The students we’ve talked with have a very interesting perspective,” Rep. Mel Myler (D-Contoocook) said at a Commission meeting on Oct. 19. “We cannot dismiss what the students are saying.”
In class the day after the public comment period, Kirwan congratulated her students for their efforts.
“They were very proud and they were very surprised at how good all of your letters were,” she said. “Now they will take your letters and they will think about some of the things you wrote in your letters.”
Students said they were grateful for the opportunity as well. “I got the honor to say what I think in my opinion,” said Kritika Ghaley, a 12th grader from Nepal. “And to make my voice heard about the change in my school.”