In September, millions of teenagers worldwide held a school strike to protest inaction on climate change. In 2018, millions of students walked out of class to advocate stricter gun control measures in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
These students are members of Generation Z, a classification designated by the Pew Research Center as being born after 1996.
This generation has been characterized in all sorts of ways, but most notably through its political activism.
But the search for what these students care about doesn’t have to wait for a climate strike or gun reform march. These students are walking the halls of Fort Atkinson High School every day.
A group of 16 of those students are members of the Student Advisory to the School District of Fort Atkinson Board of Education. Four freshmen are chosen in their first few months and sit on the advisory committee for their entire tenure at Fort Atkinson High School.
The committee is the voice of the student body to the board of education. The teens raise issues and goals and tell the board what they think their school needs.
“Your input is valued and you guys are heard,” Fort Atkinson High School principal Dan Halvorsen told the group before the first meeting started Oct. 16. “You are the representatives of your class to help bring information forward. We don’t want you just to sit here doing nothing. We want you to have a part of these conversations.”
But that doesn’t mean their only focus is on what goes on within the four walls of Fort Atkinson High School. Their world was shaped by social media. There are students in high school born the same year Facebook was invented.
That connectivity means they care about a range of issues, from pollution in the ocean to gun reform.
“I think social networking has involved us and made us group up together and focus on these topics that are gonna affect us and like the future,” senior Bryan Carrera said. “But as upperclassmen, we start looking at ourselves in the future, what’s going to happen to us and how can we affect it and change it in our way.”
These students say they’re itching for more information and more knowledge. They want to engage with the world around them.
“We think things through clearly more than people think,” junior Sawyer Stachel said.
In the committee’s meeting room, the conversation floats from acquiring microwaves for student use to how to improve restrooms — one student jokingly suggested a bidet. It then moves to how to improve school dances.
The upperclassmen are more active than the freshmen, but then again, the juniors and seniors are seasoned pros on how to participate.
These meetings inform what the school board decides how to improve the high school, and who better to have a say in that than the students themselves?
The meetings are attended by Halvorsen, school board President Mark Chaney and Interim District Administrator Rob Abbott.
Chaney has been attending these meetings for a few years, and he said he was struck by how thoughtful and engaged the students can be.
“I started to feel, like, ‘ think we’re in great shape,’” Chaney said. “The way you guys conduct yourselves here and the way I’ve seen a lot of you guys conduct yourselves out in the community. You’re not children and they’re going to have that effect. So, I think that we, people in their forties, my age, have a real distorted perception of what high-schoolers are capable of doing today.”
The four senior members of the advisory committee will be eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential election. It’s the first time they’ll be able to participate in the political process and it’s coming at one of the most politically polarized times in the country’s history.
Stachel said he’s begun to get more engaged in political issues. He said he’s started to have political disagreements with his mother, but it’s a good thing because they’re able to disagree without being disrespectful.
“It’s good as a high school or just be able to be open about it,” Stachel said. “So that way, you can kind of learn right now, especially as a junior and senior year, you’re about to just be released into the world. (At) 18 years old, you’re allowed to vote. It’s kind of good to just be able to learn on your own and just build up on what you agree with. So that way, when you start watching and paying attention to more politics, you’re ready.”
The issue that junior Avery Rohloff has engaged with most is climate change and pollution — especially in the ocean.
“Littering in the ocean, it makes me mad,” Rohloff said. “I love animals deeply.”
After Rohloff brought up pollution in the ocean, the discussion turned to the recent viral trend of avoiding plastic straws. That trend, Rohloff and Stachel said, is missing the forest for the trees on climate change and pollution.
“OK, but what’s really going on,” Rohloff said.
Stachel blamed the viral sensationalism for distracting people from the larger point, saying it’s not just about plastic straws, it’s about plastic straws and styrofoam cups and disposable water bottles.
“It became so symbolic because there was this viral video,” Stachel said. “But I think it’s kind of ridiculous how obsessed people have become over the idea of a straw when you’re making cups and plates and things that take more plastic.”
The plastic straws became Stachel’s symbol not just for pollution, but for how different generations view the world. He said he thinks his generation looks more deeply and more introspectively about topics such as this one.
Dr. Abbott agreed with Stachel, and had research to back it up.
“The research on this topic would confirm what you’re saying,” Abbott said. “Gen Z is dovetailing back around to earlier generations when it comes to political activity, when it comes to social awareness and all of those types of things.”
Generation Z — the most diverse generation in American history — is coming of age and starting to stretch its political legs. While members of this generation in Fort Atkinson are eager to be a part of this moment, for now, they want greater opportunities to learn about our world in school — and maybe a bidet in a high school restroom.