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Michelle Rhee, Students First partner with Ohio State for education reform

Public education reform programs are sweeping the nation, and one organization will now use Ohio State as a major outlet for the outreach.

The program, StudentsFirst on Campus, was created by the advocacy organization StudentsFirst and will begin at OSU, the University of San Diego, Cornell University and Morehouse College. It officially launched Tuesday night with a speech that was live streamed nationwide from Cornell and given by founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, Michelle Rhee.

Rhee spoke to The Lantern after her speech Tuesday and said that StudentsFirst is a national movement trying to transform public education. The idea to incorporate college students into the movement, Rhee said, came from college interns who worked for StudentsFirst over the summer and made the organization realize how passionate and enthusiastic college students were about education reform.

“College kids are the people who are closest to having been in the K through 12 system,” Rhee said. “A lot of them have firsthand experiences with some of the negative policies that we are talking about and were affected by them and I think they can talk with a lot more passion about it.”

Rhee is a highly controversial figure in the field of education for her views on extreme education reform.

There will be a campus director in charge of the organization at each campus which will be a student from that college. Rhee said the campus director’s role will be to raise awareness of education reform issues, grow the membership of the organization and to get people involved and taking action for public education.

Justin Schulze, a fourth-year in international development and economics, is the campus director at OSU.

Schulze was a summer intern for StudentsFirst and said he jumped on the opportunity to be a campus director when he was told about the new project.

“The reason I wanted to become campus director is largely the reason that so many people across the country are working on education and working on reforming our education system,” Schulze said. “When you really start looking at the data and you start looking at the state of the education system, we’re seeing while it’s serving some kids it’s not serving others.”

Rhee said Schulze was one of the interns that impressed her staff the most over the summer and a factor in why they decided to implement their program at OSU first.

“The fact that Justin was there was a big part of it for one, two was the fact that we were already doing some work in Ohio and we felt that it made a whole lot of sense to focus in on the states where we were actually moving legislation,” Rhee said. “Then three, there’s the challenge of how do you take a huge university like OSU where there are so many disciplined voices and really try to get a critical mass of people engaged in education reform.”

Although StudentsFirst on Campus is a college program for OSU students to get involved with, it is not a student organization and Schulze said he has no plans of creating one for specific reasons.

“There are already some great student organizations out there that we can help partner with that are working on education issues day in and day out, know what’s going on at the university and know what’s happening in the Columbus community,” Schulze said. “We need to tap into those and bring everyone together at the same table to say lets agree upon what works best for kids in education and then lets support those policies together.”

Jill Pettibone, a fourth-year in family and consumer sciences education, said the organization sounds like something she would definitely be interested in getting involved with.

“I went to a public school my whole entire life and I go to a public university now, so I feel like I recognize some of the issues and I would be more than interested and willing to help out and speak up,” Pettibone said.

The public education system in Columbus is in more need than people think, Pettibone said.

“Our public K through 12 education kind of sits in the shadows of Ohio State because it’s such a great university, but our local school systems have kids that live within walking distance of the university who would never have a chance of getting in,” Pettibone said.

Rhee stated that while there have been positives for education in the state of Ohio, it has in many ways ‘lagged’ behind academically.

“Overall I think we haven’t seen a tremendous amount of energy around the education reform movement,” Rhee said. “But I do think now with Gov. Kasich, he is somebody who is prioritizing education in his administration.”

Part of addressing the problems in Ohio, Schulze said, is building a ‘wide coalition’ of members who are passionate about reforming education.

“When there are some policies that come up at the statehouse or when there’s important polices that are happening at the district or even national level, we want to be a voice of support and some grass roots support that says hey we support this policy, we support the politicians who are going to be voting for this policy, this is something that we want,” Schulze said.

Jillian Bohme, a third-year in human development and pre-middle education, said any program that is going to give public schools and the kids more resources and more opportunities is valuable and is also helpful to the college students involved.

“College students especially are really passionate about it because we all want for people to work with children in an environment that’s going to be beneficial to them,” Bohme said.

StudentsFirst on Campus hosted a live stream of the Rhee speech at Cornell Tuesday night and had previously partnered with Teach for America and Students for Education Reform in screening an education documentary called ‘Waiting for Superman’ at the Ohio Union in early October. The next step Schulze said is to start building a small team of people and come up with the best way to kickoff the program at OSU.

For Rhee, she said there are applications at their online site for students to apply to be campus directors at their schools and she hopes to see fast expansion. She said she feels very good about the prospects of the program and that she believes in college students being the leaders of tomorrow.

“Look at what’s going on in Washington nowadays with the incredibly polarized partisan politics. When I hear conversations happening amongst college students, it’s much more respectful, it’s much more even keel, it’s much more focused on what are the solutions,” Rhee said. “So if Washington can’t figure out how we’re going to get out of the mess that we are in, I have a lot of faith in young people to do that.”

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