The needs of students should be at the center of any discussion about public education. All sides of the debate agree on that. But how often are students actually part of that conversation?
The nonprofit organization Students for Education Reform (SFER) is working to put students—the ones closest to and most affected by what’s happening in our schools—in the center of the discussion more frequently.
Siena Ruggeri is a sophomore at Regis University, a member of SFER’s Denver chapter, and a student committed to having a voice in improving an education system that has left a lot of her peers “disillusioned and disenfranchised.”
Are you a coffee drinker? Or tea? Is there a big coffee shop hangout on the Regis campus?
Like every college student, I welcome anything caffeinated. My dad’s daily ritual is a double shot espresso, so I’ll follow suit when I need a big pick-me-up. Otherwise, I do the traditional Italian cappuccino or a spicy chai. If I want something sweet with my drink, I’ll stop by The Noshery, a cute neighborhood café across the street from Regis.
Talk about your education background and what led you to get involved in Students for Education Reform?
I went to public schools in the Boulder Valley School District. I’m lucky that my neighborhood high school has an International Baccalaureate (IB) magnet program. I graduated with an IB diploma well equipped to take on an undergraduate degree.
The problem is, my positive experience with the public school system puts me in the minority. I saw my peers graduating unprepared for the next step, whether that’s college or a vocation. They’re emerging from the system disillusioned and disenfranchised. We are failing a generation of students, and in doing so, ignoring some amazing human potential.
When I met student activists at SFER, I jumped at the opportunity to get involved in making a meaningful impact. What we’ve allowed to happen is disgusting, and it’s not going to change unless students like me organize and loudly speak up. For me, the best use of my privileged education is to open the door for others to have the same experience. A k-12 education should be giving every student the tools for empowerment. I’m not going to stop until we can guarantee that.
If you had a magic wand and could instantly change one thing about public education, what would it be?
There’s this presumption that there are certain kids who can be successfully educated while some are just unteachable. Some are definitely a challenge, but no child is incapable of learning. That assertion is an insult to their intelligence and value.
Compare me, a college student, to a high school dropout. What is different between us? Exactly one thing: Someone told me I belonged in school and believed in my potential. I was told I could succeed, so I did.
Unfortunately, not everyone gets that message. Kids, especially those labeled as an English learner or special needs, start to feel that they don’t belong in an educational space. They see very few people like them succeeding academically. They start to internalize the idea that they’re less valuable. They lose faith in their potential. When they fail, we blame them instead of the system that failed to meet their needs. How do we expect education to work for everyone when we stigmatize certain people as “unteachable?” That mindset is what’s killing us.
When you think of where you want to make an impact on the world, who or what inspires you to do that?
I’m fortunate enough to have grown up with two great role models who taught me life is only worthwhile when you’re making a positive impact for others. From a young age, I was encouraged to discover my talents and use them to promote the common good. My mom is an emergency room nurse, and my dad is a lieutenant firefighter; they’ve dedicated their lives to helping others in need. They are exactly the kind of people you want responding in an emergency. When confronted with a crisis, they calmly roll up their sleeves, take charge, and handle it. I like to think I’ve inherited that attitude.
To all of your fellow college students across the country—the best reason to move to Denver after graduation? Or is it crowded enough already and let’s keep it to ourselves now?
I’m a Colorado native, and I love the lifestyle. There’s a reason I didn’t stray too far from home for college. There’s year-round sunshine, clean air and you’re an hour’s drive from some of the most picturesque scenery in the world. So yes, everything you’ve heard about us is true. But if you’re coming for a taste of it, be prepared to share it with a lot of newcomers! Denver is a hidden gem that’s not so hidden anymore.