Representing Student Voice

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As the only student representative on the Berkeley Board of Education, Niles Xi'an Lichtenstein works to open the communication channel between the board and Berkeley High School students.

Lichtenstein is well aware of the events that have plagued the school in recent years. Problems such as a chain of arson incidents, student dissent accompanied by occasional walkouts and the wide disparity in test performance across ethnic groups should be addressed at their roots, he says.

"The mentality at Berkeley High has to change and the administration needs to make an effort to really make students welcome at the high school," says Lichtenstein, the board's sole student voice. "There needs to be a community center within the school."

Serving as a student representative, Lichtenstein is able to work with the board on a number of pertinent educational issues.

The board this month approved the installation of monitoring surveillance at the high school. Lichtenstein, whose vote is only advisory, abstained from voting on the amendment.

"I'm not opposed to security cameras, but I am opposed to live surveillance," he says.

Although the cameras will only be placed in hallways and unsafe areas, Lichtenstein says he believes there should be a balance in protecting student safety and student privacy.

Teachers and students who have worked with Lichtenstein in and outside school are amazed at the level of intelligence and maturity he demonstrates.

"Niles immediately struck me as someone who was wise beyond his years," says Amy Crawford, a Berkeley High teacher who had Lichtenstein in her world literature class. "Socially, he is a kid who cares a lot about everybody. He believes that every student should have all the best opportunities and he works really hard to make it happen."Born and raised in Berkeley, Lichtenstein said he loves living in the Bay Area and all the opportunites that it offers.

"I love Berkeley because it has an eclectic mix of everything," he says. "It's unique and diverse."

An avid youth activist, Lichtenstein organized the Asian Pacific Islander Festival at Berkeley High. The turnout of more than 400 people made him realize he could impact the community in a profound way.

Lichtenstein is currently co-chair of Berkeley's Youth Commission, which brings together youth of all ages and allows them to voice their concerns to a number of city departments and the City Council.

"Teenagers are not taken seriously, oftentimes," he says. "Yet, we're impacted by the decisions that are made and definitely should be part of making them."

Continuing his efforts to create "community" within the Berkeley High campus, Lichtenstein works with Youth Together, a district-wide program on racial violence prevention that advocates racial harmony within schools.

One of the group's main goals, according to Lichtenstein, is to address the achievement gap between whites and minorities within the district. Test results have shown that the gap in SAT scores between white students, blacks and Latinos was nearly twice that of the national achievement gap.

How does this busy high school senior balance academics, community activities, and public service?

"I wake up early and meditate every morning," he says. "During that time, I organize in my head a list of to-dos and then prioritize which things are more important to me."

Lichtenstein believes that in whatever project he takes on, "the passion has to be there."

Lichtenstein's secret love is poetry.

"Poetry diminishes the lines between culture, backgrounds, and educational levels," he says.

Lichtenstein finds a venue for his expression through slam poetry, a nationwide form of poetry that allows students to write and perform their own work on stage.

As the student director on the board, Lichtenstein wishes to use his leadership position to encourage more students to get involved in the school and the community.

"Anyone my age can find the voice to express themselves," he says. "Students need to take leadership roles first in their life and then in the community."

Board members are just getting to know Lichtenstein, who was elected by students to the position.

"I really enjoy working with Niles," says Boardmember Terry Doran, who plans to meet with Lichtenstein outside the board on a regular basis. "He is astute and knowledgeable and a great advocate for students at Berkeley High. I am looking forward to sharing his counsel and insights on issues that concern the students of Berkeley High."

Lichtenstein believes that his influence reaches beyond the board and to the students.

"I'm going to try to create community within the school by organizing and creating a stronger coalition of students, bringing back the multi-cultural assemblies and sharing the bountiful diversity that the student population of Berkeley offers," he says.

Lichtenstein's dedication to the student body has earned him respect from many of his peers.

"Whenever you see Niles, all you can do is smile," says Maria Herrera, student body president at the high school.

"Everyone says that Berkeley High is so diverse, but Niles sees the division between the different student groups and he works really hard to bring people together."


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