The 12th graders at Tyee High School are frustrated.
About half the class may not graduate because they’re failing state tests. The after-school classes that would help them catch up don’t fit into their lives.
That’s why, at Tyee's Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment, teachers are helping students turn frustration into political change. On a recent early morning, a group of seniors traveled to Olympia to lobby legislators.
On the bus ride down, Luis Villalobos tried to sneak in a nap. He works a full time job at Taco Bell after school. Some days, he just wants to drop out. But his mom tells him: "You are the one that’s going to get us out of here."
One seat over, Kaylee Nation stared out the bus window. She said she may not graduate this year because she missed a lot of school last year after her brother died unexpectedly. But she blames herself for falling behind in school.
"When I went back to school, I tried to maintain my grades and I lost it,” she said. “I couldn’t do it and I failed all my classes."
These students have the trip to Olympia all planned out. The PTA provided the bus. Social studies teacher James Boutin offered to chaperone.
But their very first meeting was canceled when Rep. Tina Orwall of Des Moines was unexpectedly called to the House floor.
The students raced to the chamber lobby, hoping to catch just a minute or two with Orwall.
Kaylee was nervous. "I just don’t know what to say, you know?" she said. "I want to know what to say, but I know it will be better if I just 'freeball' it."
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Orwall appeared. Kaylee froze, and everybody looked at Luis. He asked Orwall to eliminate a statewide science test that is keeping many of them from graduating.
"As long as we pass the class with an A or a B, why would we have to take that test?" he asked.
"I know we’re looking at the science test this year and whether that will be required, and we've had some recommendations, so that definitely will be in front of us," Orwall said. She noted that she serves on the education committee.
After a few more minutes, Orwall excused herself. The students wonder if lobbying legislators in brief meetings like that will lead to anything.
Lobbyist Erin Dziedzic offers to give the kids some lobbying advice out on the lawn.
Once again, Luis spoke first: "What are the chances that we get approved anything that we’re fighting for?"
Dziedzic remained upbeat. "I think the fun part of down here is you never know," she said. "Any legislator you meet with may grab your idea and introduce a bill this year on it…
“You came and told them a problem that you saw. So you’re giving them a tool to try and fix it."
She told them to value every interaction in Olympia, including meetings with aides and office assistants. And when they agree to follow up on something – be sure to follow through.
Later in the afternoon, the students prepared to visit Rep. Mia Gregerson. This time, they agreed Kaylee should lead the conversation. She struggled to find the right words.
"What am I supposed to say?” she said. “What do we want to change? Tell me that. What do we want to change?"
Student Iveth Ramirez offered her opinion: "Take the requirement thing off."
But all the nervousness evaporated when Rep. Gregerson told them she lives down the street from Tyee High. "We're all from the same place," she said.
Kaylee told Gregerson about the after-school program that is supposed to help kids who failed the test.
"A lot of kids can’t go to it because they are working to provide for their family," she said. She added that the teachers in the program also need more training.
Kaylee asked Gregerson to help Tyee by getting the school money to run the program during the regular school day. She said it might be too late for her, but other students in the Highline School District would benefit.
Gregerson said not to give up: "We are Highline. All we have is the future. So everyone is worth 100 percent. That’s it. So let’s fix this."
Gregerson asked the students to come up with a business plan, with the goal of having 100 percent of students pass the test.
She asked hard questions. After the meeting, Kaylee was inspired. "Nobody even at our school has asked us, 'What is your business plan?' And now we have the support. She told us she would support us in whatever we do.”
The students said they’re committed to finding a solution. Their next stop is Washington, D.C. They’re already working on a plan to raise money for that trip.