‘My job is to get out of the way’: On empowering students to make a difference

Student-led 'Million Word Challenge' aims to improve reading skills for the community at large.

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Students from the Y.O.U. program strategizing for the Million Word Challenge at the Granite State Organizing Project office where they meet in Manchester. Photo/Tone Payton

MANCHESTER, NH – Manchester students struggled with online learning during the COVID era, and it began to reflect in their grades. But when a group of students saw where the city ranked in education last year,  they felt a fire to change things.

So they formed “The Million Word Challenge,” an initiative to help improve the Manchester school’s rankings.

 “The Million-word challenge is an initiative that encourages kids and families to increase their reading over the summer.  We see these low reading levels in elementary schools, and we want to get as many kids as possible reading over the summer,” said Lydia Mann, a sophomore at Central High School. 

According to U.S News, In Manchester School District, 33 percent of elementary students tested at or above the proficient level for reading, and 27 percent tested at or above that level for math. Also, 31 percent of middle school students tested at or above the proficient level for reading, and 21 percent tested at or above that level for math. And 43 percent of high school students tested at or above the proficient level for reading, and 23 percent tested at or above that level for math.

This Manchester-centric challenge is supported and sponsored by Y.O.U (Young Organizers United), a group of high school students who have come together as part of the Granite State Organizing Project (GSOP) to discuss and solve issues in their communities and schools. 

“These students pioneered this initiative because they wanted to help,” said Sudi Lett, a youth and education coordinator for GSOP. “This is student-led, and they are the engine. I provide the support and structure that they need. My job is to get out of the way.”  

Sudi engages with his students in a light-hearted and effective way. His words seem to resonate with them. They don’t tune him out. The students are learning about community involvement. They canvassed neighborhoods to inform and engage with the residents about their initiative, handing out brochures. These actions can be the conduit between the youth and civic engagement. In a state that sees many kids flee once they are of legal age, it’s refreshing to see some of them exhibiting leadership skills that can pay dividends down the line. 

“We didn’t want to demonize any of our schools, but we did want to question equity. Why is one school doing well while another one is struggling within miles from the other?” said Lett

Why did Mackenzie, a sophomore at West High School, get involved?  “Necessity,” she said. 

Wesley, a sophomore at Central high school, felt it was about helping others. And Mia, a freshman at West High School, wanted to help kids who weren’t reading on grade level.  

One can look at Manchester’s criminal justice system to see the flip side of this coin. Usually, students whose grades are subpar turn to the streets in some form or fashion. Manchester offers everything from gang initiation to gun violence for youth who become frustrated with school and home life. 

The kids in Lett’s class buckled down instead, got creative, and looked for ways to engage their peers to strive for academic excellence. They started a social media campaign, #readwithYOU, that’s gaining traction. Still, they need more hands. 

A young woman, Favour, was in the middle of making a calendar for June to help with organizing and deadlines. She believes that Y.O.U helped her to have a safe space where her voice has power.

“The Million Word Challenge helps with the learning loss during Covid,” she said. “I’m excited about this program and would love to see more participation.”

That is the goal, says Lett.

“We set this initiative up as a way to engage. These systems are already in place with the superintendent and other positions inside their schools. So when they canvas the neighborhood with this mission, it’s similar to a politician,” said Lett.  

The group also helped get a high school student added to their school board in 2020.  

Lett feels it’s essential for the students to know local leaders and elected officials — and the ins and outs of their jobs. They are beginning to see who holds what positions and what those roles mean. The hope, Lett said, is that the students will help foster civic engagement among their peers and ultimately start growing relationships between the community and elected officials.

The Million Word Challenge is about so much more than improving education.  

Lett hopes these initiatives will help young adults consider staying in New Hampshire after they graduate.

“I believe that the students will feel like they can stay here and make a change.  If not, they will be representing New Hampshire wherever they go.”     

The initiative can use the community’s help and is looking for more participants.  The students hope that community stakeholders and politicians take notice of a program that’s working hard to change the narrative.  

You can find this initiative on Facebook under “Y.O.U.”


About this Author

Anthony Payton

This column is part of The Common Ground Initiative which aims to highlight the diversity of our communities with stories of people the average Granite Stater might not get to see or meet, clarify misconceptions and find the threads that bind us all together as one New Hampshire community.