Pa. teens discuss violence, equity ahead of annual Woodland Hills student summit
Hundreds of teens from across the region will gather this spring to brainstorm solutions to a variety of issues students in southwestern Pennsylvania schools are grappling with, including student mental health, racism and gun violence.
The fifth annual Woodland Hills Student Summit on March 8 will convene students from five counties at Penn State Greater Allegheny.
Tyshawn Kennedy, a senior at Aliquippa Junior/Senior High School, said that even though students come from a diverse mix of urban, suburban and rural schools, they are working toward common goals.
“Even though the perspectives are different, we're still trying to reach the same goal, get the same point across,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy was one of roughly 75 student leaders present at the Heinz History Center on Friday to finalize plans for the summit. There, students will lead a series of workshops on everything from environmental concerns to LGBTQ+ issues.
Kennedy, who is working with half a dozen other students to lead a workshop on racial and social equity, said his group is considering getting bracelets of one color for participants to take home.
The bands would feature one common color, “so that every district around can feel involved, because every district has Black and white [students],” Kennedy said. “This is a good topic to include them in because we want to bring unity between the districts, not judging one district off of them being predominantly Black.”
Robyn Procter, a senior at Woodland Hills, said that her district is often perceived differently than others.
“Always in the news we're getting talked about, but in all actuality, we're doing great things at our school,” Procter said.
At the same time, Procter said that Woodland Hills — where 62% of students are Black — doesn’t employ enough teachers of color. During the 2022-2023 school year, 94% of all teachers in the district were white.
“I feel like we need to touch on that more,” Procter added.
Another student in the group, Aliquippa junior Mohammed Aziz, added that more schools in the region should offer African American studies. The College Board’s AP offering drew the ire of conservative politicians like Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who moved to ban the course earlier this year.
“Basically what we're trying to do is get them, get African American studies, at least as an elective or a core subject for schools,” Aziz said.
Bringing student stories to the table
The first student summit was held at Woodland Hills five years ago in response to the killing of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II, according to English teacher Erin Wall.
Rose was a student at Woodland Hills before he was fatally shot by an East Pittsburgh police officer.
“A student group was formed, and they really wanted to be able to discuss topics beyond school curriculum,” said Wall.
What once started as a conference of 50 students has since grown to 300, and garnered keynote speakers like police shooting survivor Leon Ford. Experts from CeaseFirePA and other organizations are helping student leaders at this year’s conference with their research and will be on hand to provide additional resources.
Students like Alonzo Wade will also use their personal experiences to inform the summit’s workshops. Wade, a senior at Belle Vernon Area High School, lost a friend to gun violence in November 2022.
“That's a big part of what we're going to talk about, and then we’re going to talk about other kids in the Pittsburgh area,” Wade said. “I think I should be, not watching it [but] talking about it, since it happened to someone I know.”
“If you start locally, then it expands nationally,” he added. “Us doing this right now is going to help nationally.”
Cassie Heinauer, a student at the predominantly-white Avonworth High School, said that participating in the student summit over the past three years has allowed her to broaden her worldview.
“I go to a very homogeneous school district, so being able to come here and hear other people's opinions has helped me positively in life,” Heinauer said. “I feel like getting other people on board and allowing them to come to the summit is also a positive change that can happen.”
Students from 15 school districts will participate in the conference. To Avery Thomas-Henderson, a sophomore at Woodland Hills, that means the lessons learned there will go far.
“Getting it out to different school districts also means that you can spread it more quickly, like by word of mouth and by social, because everyone knows someone,” Thomas-Henderson said.
Looking around the room, Thomas-Henderson saw dozens of kids coming together to try to “make our world a little bit safer, trying to make us a little more comfortable.”
“It really does move me,” Thomas-Henderson said. “It makes me really happy, and I have hope for the beginning, you know?”