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Photo courtesy of Mikva Challenge

Janelle Perez, a recent graduate of Jones College Prep, takes notes during a Mikva Challenge education council meeting with Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman.

Teenage political activists leave their mark on Chicago, pursue education policy reform

by Katie Banks
April 12, 2011

Related Links

Read past reports produced by Mikva Challenge student council membersApplications for Mikva Challenge’s 2011 City Youth Council, due Friday, April 15Learn more about Mikva Challenge

Mikva Challenge participants

During the 2009-2010 school year, 104 teachers, 87 Chicago-area schools, and more than 5,100 students participated in Mikva Challenge.


During the 2010-2011 school year, the organization has grown to partner with 124 teachers and school counselors in 96 Chicago-area high schools. 


Last year Mikva Challenge received 126 applications for 26 spots on its city youth councils. Organization directors anticipate even more applications for the 2011 summer.


For Janelle Perez, high school was pretty perfect. 

“I loved my high school,” said Perez, a 2010 graduate of Jones College Prep in Chicago. “The teachers and students there are very welcoming and there is no negative environment. Everyone is there to help you. I had so many resources.”

Not every student in Chicago Public Schools can relate. Jones is consistently recognized as one of the top high schools in the country. It ranks 4th in Chicago and 6th in Illinois.

“After joining Mikva Challenge, I realized I didn’t have a typical Chicago high school experience,” said Perez, now a freshman at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

Mikva Challenge is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that is focused on helping Chicago's youth become involved in the political process through elections, activism and policy-making programs.

Perez participated in the organization’s city youth councils for three years while attending Jones. After hearing other students’ high school experiences, she said she was shocked.

“There were times when students would say that a kid got beat up in the hallway and the security guards didn’t do anything,” Perez said. “There was no violence in my school. It was eye opening for me.”

As part of the youth council, Perez researched education issues such as graduation requirements, discipline strategies and social-emotional support for students. She then helped develop solutions to school problems and made recommendations to city officials.

“I didn’t know we would be meeting with [Chicago Public Schools CEO] Arne Duncan,” Perez said. “It’s amazing to give students the opportunity to have a voice in education policy, to have people in higher power who will listen to students, and to take their personal stories and put them into their decisions.”

Jessica Gingold, the education council director at Mikva Challenge, said communication between Chicago students and policymakers is vital to improving the school system.

“Adults are constantly making decisions that affect young people’s lives without talking to young people,” Gingold said. “These kids are experts on what really happens in schools, but often they’re just not asked.”

Experts agree on the merit of programs like Mikva Challenge. David Mayrowetz, a UIC associate professor who studies education reform, said a student perspective is an important component of education policymaking that is often missing.

“When kids do research on their own and present that data, it’s powerful and there’s no substitute for it,” Mayrowetz said. “The more we can get student voices involved in education reform, the more likely we’ll make some changes that will have a direct benefit to the students.”

Gingold and others say that Chicago students and schools will continue to benefit from Mikva Challenge as the organization’s alumni continue to affect education policy long after graduating. 

Samuel Ryan, a senior at DePaul University and a Mikva Challenge alumnus, said his involvement with the organization motivated him to pursue a degree in public policy.

“I would love to work in education policy to have the opportunity to see how impactful my experiences have been,” Ryan said. “I want to do something that’s focused on civic engagement with youth.”

Perez said her experience with the organization similarly inspired her to major in education at Beloit.

“I want to reform education through teaching,” Perez said. “I know about all the relevant issues like funding, social learning and what’s needed in the schools. I have those tools and I want to go out there and do something about it.”

Just as important as the students’ affect on education systems is Mikva Challenge’s long-term affect on them.

“Mikva has opened my eyes to my voice and my sense of power,” Ryan said. “It helped me realize that I can advocate what I believe in and empower others to find their common voice.”