Bridging Inequities in Education
Pragya Upreti is a high school junior in Lexington, KY. She began working with the Kentucky Student Voice Team during the COVID-19 pandemic. This youth-run, non-profit organization focuses on improving the education system throughout Kentucky. Pragya worked as a lead researcher on the Coping with COVID student survey which engaged over 10,000 students and informed education policy change. Through their work, school administration and lawmakers can see how the pandemic affected young people in schools across Kentucky. Her time with the Kentucky Student Voice Team has fueled her passion for education justice.
Why did you join the Kentucky Student Voice Team?
Last March, my school got shut down due to COVID-19. I had nothing to do but knew that I didn’t want to stay home for an indefinite amount of time. I spent time during quarantine learning how to be active towards social change. After talking with family and friends who knew about the team, I knew they would be a good fit for me. So, I reached out to the folks at Kentucky Student Voice Team (KSVT). That’s all I had to do! Within a week, I was on the team and already felt like I had been there for months.
What has it been like being a part of the Kentucky Student Voice Team?
KSVT is not like other organizations: there is no hierarchy. I felt like I was among people I had been working with for months even though I had only been there for days. When we say it is youth-run, we mean it. The organization accepts students from elementary school to college. Young people are at the center of our work. However, we do receive support from adults and organizations to complete our goals. The adults help expand our partnerships and provide guidance on proper research methods. That has been really empowering for me to be able to do meaningful work with this team.
The organization’s attitude is all about real advocacy. We do more than protest. We look to change policy. Every project is related to how policies can change or be improved. It’s amazing to see other young people like myself working together to make change in our schools. A good example of how we do this is the Coping with COVID student survey I have been working on.
Describe your experience working on the ‘Coping with COVID Student Survey’.
KSVT conducted audits in person before the pandemic. Audits usually meant that the Kentucky Student Voice Team would visit schools in rural areas or schools that lacked as many resources as other parts of the state. At those schools, the team would evaluate the students, the environment they were learning in, and how they were doing emotionally and socially. In the end, the team would complete a summary report of their findings and send it to administration and community leaders to inform policy change. After the pandemic started, we wanted to continue that work. We converted the process into a digital format and sent out the survey to as many people as possible - for example, principals, youth-led organizations, and anyone with connections to education. We even launched a big social media campaign. We were able to get completed surveys from all 120 Kentucky counties and over 10,000 participants!
After that, we spent over six months analyzing the data. It was a long process because we looked at responses that were only numbers and ones that had descriptions or short answers. Doing this was crucial in understanding what all the statistics meant when talking about students in school during pandemic. We had adults and other organizations get involved to make sure we were analyzing the data correctly at this stage. The survey showed us how much the pandemic negatively impacted students. It was a really big effort that couldn’t have been done without the support of those adults and organizations.
What is the biggest takeaway you have learned from working on the Kentucky Student Voice Team?
I think young people are often not utilized enough. They are praised for being active but are rarely given meaningful tasks to do. Our work shows that involving young people should be the standard. The higher-ups need to know how their decisions are directly affecting young people.
I also had another big takeaway through working on the student survey. The project is an example of how much students can gain valuable experience even during a pandemic. We were able to distribute a survey, analyze the data, and send our results across the state. We presented our findings to the Kentucky Board of Education and lawmakers, made presentations in front of mental health professionals and policymakers, and even sent in recommendations to change school-related policies.
You’ve talked a little about education justice already, but how would you define it?
Education justice means many things. First it means that young people need to be at the center of important topics that affect them - for example, insufficient counseling resources, poorer outcomes based on race and class, and many other issues. We won’t see meaningful change without hearing from the young people who spend 40+ hours in the classrooms. Those are the people who need to be involved in conversations about schools. Education justice also means radically rethinking what public education looks like and that takes investing in young people. But education justice is not isolated. It relates to social justice, racial equality, and economic fairness. Everything is connected.
What advice would you give to a young person who is interested in education justice?
The first step is having a roundtable discussion. It might sound simple but these spaces allow people to hear all sides of a situation in a school environment. Students and administration can share their experiences with each other and then share it with policymakers. It’s important to build momentum around what you are trying to achieve. Bring together students, teachers, and principals to talk about what needs to change. It doesn’t matter what experience or level of comfort you have with sharing your voice. It might make you vulnerable, but things change when you can bring together a group of students who are interested in the same topics.
What inspires you?
Young people. I know it seems very broad but there isn’t a better answer. We are currently living through the consequences of injustice and indifference. We are the generation of mass school shootings, financial insecurity, and so many more issues that impact students directly. These issues speak to what we have been through. But it also speaks to how much power and motivation we have to change the world around us. We want to see a brighter future where these issues don’t exist. Seeing the work of young people shows me that we genuinely have the mindset to change. I see what young people are doing all around me, and it is so inspiring. Ultimately, we’re going to be making decisions in Congress and the Oval Office someday!