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Challenge: Back to School 2021

Not Just Talk ... Taking Action + Listening To Teens

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For some people talking about “bringing the youth voice to the table” is just that .. talk.

But not for these two educators.

Concepcion Alvar, the Headmistress of Marymount School of New York and Desi Sullivan, Principal of King Chavez Community High School, recognize that when it comes to building supportive communities, impactful education programs and a respectful school culture, including youth at the table is essential.

Recently both Concepcion and Desi explained to me why their schools hosted


hackathons focused on teens coming up with solutions to the problems facing their communities. Since Marymount is preparing to open a new campus on East 97th Street, Concepcion shared that, “As a school we want to forge deep and lasting connections with neighborhood schools and this Hackathon with WIT was the first step toward implementing our vision. We are so excited to encourage young people in our community to live out the Marymount mission to challenge, shape, and change the world." As a result of providing Marymount students and students outside of Marymount with the opportunity, teens came up with solutions to problems in the areas of: School Safety, Teen Mental Health, Education Inequality and Financial Literacy.


Desi Sullivan spoke to me about her reasoning for bringing her students together to address issues like: Trolley Safety, Teen Mental Health, Youth Trafficking. She explained, “We want our teens to shine and learn to find their voice when it comes to topics that matter to them. Teens need to have a sense of who they are, what they want, and how they can take action and make a difference at our school and in our community. We tell our students that we respect their voice and want to hear their ideas. This event showed them just that!”

Last month I got to talk with a few teens who participated in these hackathons. I was interested in getting their perspective on why events like these matter to them. Rania Haque from Marymount School, was excited from the start, “When Mr. Buckley proposed the WIT Hackathon in our entrepreneurship class, I was immediately hooked. I thought it would provide a unique environment for learning and skill development. I was also excited to apply my creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking abilities to the issue we would be solving to create an eventual prototype.” Rania decided to take on issues connected to Teen Mental Health.

Hannah Wu, also from Marymount School, tackled the Teen Mental Health issue, too. At first she was hesitant to give up an entire day, but as she shared with me, “At the Hackathon, time became my last concern because I was so engaged in what our group was working on. Everyone was involved and had to use creativity and collaboration together, which is something I had never experienced before in an academic setting. I got to meet new people, express myself and my ideas in a positive and productive manner. My team also got to come up with projects/solutions that could help and inspire people.”

When I heard back from Marisol Arroyo, a student at King Chavez Community High School, she shared with me how much she enjoyed working with people she doesn’t usually speak with at school. She also appreciated the opportunity to use her voice and ideas because, “There are people that need our help at our school and in our community.” Prior to the hackathon event, Marisol was afraid to speak in public. After the event she realized, “My school community didn’t judge me. We were all focused on solving problems. I learned so much and it was awesome to see the support of the solutions we pitched.”

I checked in with both Hannah and Rania and they have decided to keep the


momentum going. Despite full course loads, playing sports, and juggling extracurricular activities, they have decided to keep working on their idea. Rania shared that, “we truly believe that the stigma surrounding mental health is an important issue to address through. early intervention. Early intervention doesn't necessarily have to be talking to 6th graders about serious topics like depression but can include working with younger students to teach them coping skills like meditation and other self-care methods while incorporating a fun activity like cooking or playing in the park.” Hannah added, “Our program would provide preventative mental illness strategies to younger students in their developmental stages. Not all health classes are engaging or relatable, and often make no impact in student’s lives. That is why we are passionate about this work — we believe that we can create more accessible, engaging, and effective mental health resources to positively impact students.”

For both Concepcion and Desi, creating the space for their students to use their voice and share their ideas was just the first step. They know that helping students implement the ideas and take action matters. As Desi shared, “We want our students to step into their power and we are there for them from idea to execution. It’s their ideas that really make our school a better place.”

If you know of an educator who is truly “doing whatever it takes” to support students and include their ideas/voices … please reach out to me! They might just be featured in an upcoming article!

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