More than 20 students from Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park and Roosevelt Middle School in River Forest were among the 120 or so middle schoolers from the near west suburbs who attended the first ever Youth Leadership Conference Friday. The event, which was mostly run by 80 students from the Leadership and Launch class at Oak Park and River Forest High School, was hosted by the West Suburban Consortium for Academic Excellence and held at the Hodgkins Park District’s Recreation Center.

After a morning of team building activities, the students met in breakout sessions in the afternoon and then ended their day by meeting in their school groups to discuss issues at their school that they thought should be addressed.

“I thought it was a very amazing experience,” said Coralai Groulx, a seventh grader at Julian who was at conference.

Groulx said the conference was empowering.

“I learned that it’s important to be a leader, especially as a young person,” Groulx said.

Julian eighth grader Maggie Fougere also enjoyed attending the conference.

“It was really fun and I liked that students were able to share all their opinions and it was interesting to see how the schools, like, differed from ours,” Fougere said.

Fougere said it was interesting meeting students from other middle schools.

“A lot of them were really different from what I had imagined,” Fougere said. “There was a huge variety of people.”

The Julian students discussed problems at their school including issues with lunch, the advisory period and dealing with mental health issues.

“Students don’t feel safe to tell anyone anything,” Fougere said during the discussion among Julian students. “There is such a bad problem with judgment in our school.”

The Julian students also talked with the two OPRF students assigned to their group as facilitators about what high school would be like sharing their hopes and fears that OPRF students addressed. Two OPRF students were assigned to each middle school group and acted as discussion facilitators.

William Lee, the assistant principal at Julian, attended the conference but mostly stayed in the background, speaking only occasionally.

Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School did not send any students to the conference.

Brooks principal April Capuder did not respond to a phone call or email on Monday asking why Brooks did not participate in the conference. But a District 97 communications staffer replied by email.

“District 97 is committed to providing leadership opportunities to all of our students,” wrote Rebecca Bald from D97. “Our new superintendent, Dr. (Ushma) Shah, first had the opportunity to learn more about the WSCAE and its activities when she attended their first meeting of the school year in October, after registration was due. While the district was able to coordinate participation for one school this year, we are looking forward to students from both of our middle schools attending this conference in the future.”

Roosevelt sent 11 students, 10 eighth grade girls and one seventh grade boy, who are part of the school’s service club. The Roosevelt students expressed concerns about discipline and the lack of time for students who have a lot of outside activities to complete their homework and other issues. One girl complained that teachers at Roosevelt held students to the standards of high school students but treated students as if they were back in elementary school. The boy was concerned about gum chewing and candy eating in the school.

Roosevelt Assistant Principal Tina Steketee attended the conference and participated in the discussions with Roosevelt students, but like Lee, mostly held back and observed except to answer questions and provide context and more information.

Steketee said concerns of the Roosevelt students centered around student advocacy, communication, discipline and rules.

The Julian students who attended, seven girls and four boys, will meet with Supt. Shah to discuss their concerns and to talk about how Julian and the district will respond to the students concerns.

“I think there will be changes once the superintendent and the people in the district hear what we had to say,” Fougere said.

Julian seventh grader Carina Birriel is hopeful that some changes will result from the student input and that their suggestions will be implemented.

“I really liked how student driven the activity was and we reached a lot of points where we addressed them and I liked how we came up with ideas to fix these and I like how that people are actually listening to us instead of just ignoring us and moving on,” Birriel said.

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