How to spend federal school COVID aid? Connecticut high-school students pitch their ideas – Hartford Courant

Tuesday was Election Day at Windham High School — not for open senate seats, but for a handful of proposals that would direct a portion of the state’s federal coronavirus relief dollars to projects designed, and voted on, by students.
Windham is one of 54 high schools that participated in what the state Department of Education calls Voice4Change, a first-time program that gives students the chance to have a say in how their schools use $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief funding.
The department approved 150 of the more than 200 proposals submitted by high schools since the initiative was launched in November. Winning projects will receive $20,000 to carry out the design.
“I always like to say ‘Nothing about them, without them,’ ” Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker told Windham students Tuesday. “Everything we do in education is about you, so why not have your voice in that space?”
As students voted, Windham class representatives pitched their plans to state leaders including Tucker, Gov. Ned Lamont, and local state representatives.
Sophomores proposed a project that would “revamp” the outdoor courtyard with a furnished and weatherized pavilion, giving students a place to relax and recharge between classes.
Another group proposed to build a greenhouse to give students a chance to learn agricultural skills, taking inspiration from a quote attributed to Audrey Hepburn: “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.”
“We think it’s important for students to have a learning outlet for how they can take care of their environment,” Andrea Quinones, a senior at Windham, said.
Seniors Resia Baran, class president, and Geraldine Gonzalez, class secretary, pitched leaders on “Inclusion Solution,” an annual fair to showcase and celebrate Windham’s diversity replete with food, music and games.
“We pride ourselves in being a close-knit community … We want to recognize the people in our community that make the town of Windham unique,” Baran said.
All groups were tasked with consulting with industry experts to create a project budget and draw up a full design plan.
“I love these ideas because they’re positive, they’re optimistic, and they’re forward looking,” Lamont said. “[They’re] about the outdoors, [they’re] about respect for each other and for your communities.”
Early voting began Monday at Windham and at dozens of schools across Connecticut. The winning project for each school will be announced in early April.
The program also sets aside funding for five Commissioner’s Choice Awards, which the state Department of Education will award to projects of merit that didn’t win the student vote.
Following federal guidance, Connecticut students were asked to design projects that pertained to state-level priorities as the country looks to recover from learning loss and the social and emotional toll of the pandemic.
Officials view Voice4Change benefits as two-fold: students are given the agency to ask for the change they view is needed most, and the state can be sure the projects will make a difference. It’s the first initiative of its kind both in Connecticut and in the country, Lamont has said.
“I’m so happy that Connecticut, under the governor’s leadership, determined that with all the federal funding we were getting in the state, that this was an opportunity for students … to tell us how you’re choosing to spend some of our recovery funding,” she continued.
More than 70% of the 150 proposals were targeted toward addressing social, emotional and mental health for students and staff — more than any other category.
“You’re telling us and reinforcing what we already know to be true: that you’re looking for that level of support,” Russell-Tucker said.
Seamus McAvoy may be reached at smcavoy@courant.com

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