In Defense of Student Autonomy

Step is stomping, reverberating up to the ceilings; artists are on the floor, painting giant canvases; and students are sewing costumes underneath their desks during class. It’s SING! season and it’s madness, but it’s always worth it: in the end, each grade will come together to produce a hilarious, beautiful, and moving display of incredible passion and talent.

What makes SING! so special is that it is entirely student-run—we are in Whole Foods writing our own scripts, in hallways choreographing our own dances, in classrooms directing actors, and backstage using power-tools to construct our own sets. Aside from supervising rehearsals and ensuring that our material is in good taste, faculty members play little role in the creative process of SING!. Instead, students are granted a large degree of autonomy to produce the show, and it is this freedom that allows it to be so successful.

What is “student autonomy”?

Autonomy refers to the freedom and control students have over their extracurricular activities. When we, the students, have autonomy, we organize ourselves, develop our own visions, and execute them together. In the process, we teach the next generation what we’re doing, so that they (rather than their adult supervisors) can ensure that the cycle continues.

Our autonomy fuels the vibrant extracurricular life that makes Stuyvesant so special. However, recent events have led us to believe that our current freedoms may be at risk. We ask that the administration grant us the same independence that we have held previously, for it is this that allows us to thrive.

Our Autonomy

Student organizations of every size, from Big Sibs to the calligraphy club, are self-regulated and student-run, often with the insight of a faculty advisor. Some of these clubs are mature organizations with decades of history under their belts, and therefore are well-established and well-organized. The Spectator, for instance, produces 16 28-page papers a year, because for over 100 years, each generation has trained the next to do so. Not all clubs survive to pass down their legacy, but that is part of the learning experience.  

On our own, Stuyvesant students find and lead volunteering events, all the while cultivating relationships with charity organizations around the city. We conduct orchestral ensembles for the Stuyvesant Theater Community. We organize presentations about, say, the importance of films in Japanese culture, and then we lead club meetings where we teach each other about what we have learned. Our newspaper remains entirely financially independent because we sell ads to fund its printing, and our student government forms partnerships outside the school to help support student activities.

We write charters so that we aren’t just groups of students getting together, but legitimate organizations. These documents are approved by the school to validate each organization, recognize its history, and defend its rights.

The Magic of Autonomy

Our autonomy is what sets Stuyvesant apart from other schools. Our peer schools, like Bronx Science, share academic rigor as a defining feature, but lack the independence that we have outside of the classroom. Faculty at Bronx Science are more heavily involved in extracurricular activities, and as a result, the culture surrounding extracurriculars is completely different. Faculty advisors take attendance at club meetings, adding stringency that transforms an extracurricular into just another class.

Therefore, students are less enthusiastic about extracurriculars. Their school newspaper produces just two issues a year. Their student government is less powerful and less involved, at least partly because the administration organizes the elections and forces students to vote in homeroom. (At Stuyvesant, the student-run Board of Elections organizes elections, and voting is optional.) Finally, there is not the same enthusiasm for SING!, which results in less student involvement and initiative.

This disparity can be attributed to the fact that students are more likely to be inspired by each other than by faculty members. Simply put, the absence of adults is what makes extracurriculars fun. The more we enjoy our extracurriculars, the more likely we are to invest our time and energy into them. Having space allows us to be ourselves, and encourages creativity.

The feeling of learning from your peers is different from learning from a faculty member, for there is less pressure and more room to make mistakes without “consequences.” Here, students teach each other everything from public speaking to writing, from dance to robotics. Most importantly, students teach each other how to lead. We learn how to assert ourselves, how to manage money, how to be open and available to underclassmen who depend on us for advice, and how to manage our own mistakes. None of this personal development would occur if we were not in charge of our own experiences.

Maintain the Status Quo

The mutual trust between the student body and the administration has allowed this environment of independence to exist for so many years. Recently, however, small changes have impinged on the autonomy we have known and come to expect. For example, the Student Union Suite, the site of the student lounge and offices for four of Stuyvesant’s largest organizations, has been closed to student use for well over a month. Instead, the space is being used as an operating center for the IDNYC program.

Instead of establishing the program in a space like the lobby, where other organizations such as the Blood Drive set up their equipment, the administration has planted IDNYC in the one place where students expect and deserve to have their rights protected. The arrangement also blocks the Student Union’s access to their meeting place and The Spectator’s access to a century’s worth of archives. For the past few years, the doors to the Student Union Suite have been kept open so that the room can be considered an extension of the hallway, a compromise that allows students to use the space freely without the presence of a supervisor. This is a compromise we value immensely. But as the days pass and the doors remain shut to us, our discontent grows.

Because Stuyvesant students often live far away from each other, it is difficult to organize large club or team gatherings in places other than the school itself. The building is a valuable resource for students and teachers alike, providing ample space and technology to practice dance routines, prepare for debate tournaments, work on projects, enjoy time with friends, and more.

Before this year, the “Five O’Clock Rule,” which stipulates that students must leave the building after 5:00 p.m. unless a supervising adult is present, was enforced with a degree of leniency. Recently, however, faculty members have begun to roam the hallways long before the time students must leave, curtly telling various groups to exit the building. When the administration idiosyncratically enforces the rules that govern our student life, it breeds resentment and tension between students and faculty and diminishes the quality of the work we do after 3:35.

For example, StuySquad, our dance organization, has consistently utilized school hallways as rehearsal spaces. Recently, however, students  have been told by faculty members that they cannot dance in the hallways, and that many of their most impressive routines are too dangerous to be performed. Taking away StuySquad’s practice space and preventing them from performing their routines puts a damper on their potential. We are unable to do our best work for our extracurriculars if we don’t have the space or the freedom to do so.

With the SING! season upon us, we feel that, more than ever, it is necessary to reaffirm our agreement with the administration to organize and develop our own productions, free from unnecessary intervention from school faculty. This means being able to write our scripts without strict censorship, choose our own student leaders without faculty intervention, and have the same amount of time and freedom for producing the show that we have always had.

We are not arguing for complete freedom from administrative oversight; this is, after all, a high school. But, when faculty members make judgment calls that impact the work we pour passion and effort into, they create an atmosphere of distrust and animosity that dulls the magic that brought many students to Stuyvesant in the first place. Stuyvesant students have shown, time and time again, that we can handle the responsibilities given to us in this school. From planning prom to coordinating SING! and graduation day, our students have proven themselves to be worthy leaders. We deserve to be treated as such.

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