College student from Lexington is field director of national nonprofit Student Voice

Andrew Brennen, a recent Dunbar graduate, introduced speakers at a rally in favor of a bill at the Capitol in Frankfort in March 23. The students were protesting a change to a bill they supported to allow high school students to serve on superintendent screening committees.
Andrew Brennen, a recent Dunbar graduate, introduced speakers at a rally in favor of a bill at the Capitol in Frankfort in March 23. The students were protesting a change to a bill they supported to allow high school students to serve on superintendent screening committees.

Recent Paul Laurence Dunbar High School graduate Andrew Brennen is getting national attention for his belief that teen students should not be passive about their education.

With the philosophy that student voice can affect educational policy, Brennen helped found the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence Student Voice Team in 2012.

As a Lexington high school senior, he helped lead the successful effort to persuade the 2014 General Assembly to restore funding for Kentucky public schools.

After graduation, he continued to co-direct the student voice team, which led a rally of hundreds on the state Capitol steps this year in an effort to include students in superintendent screening committees.

On Tuesday, Brennen, 19, talked at a White House summit on high schools about his passion for implementing student voice nationwide. He announced that he was building on work begun in Kentucky and would be traveling across the country for a year for a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit called Student Voice.

“If schools can hold students accountable for their own education, wouldn’t it be something if students could hold schools accountable too?” Brennen said at the summit.

On the tour, Brennen said, the goal will be to have students vote on what they think are the most important rights high schools should provide to improve schools.

Demographic data will show Student Voice “what different students in every quarter of the country aim to get out of their education.”

As part of Brennen’s commitment, he is taking a year off from his studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the tour.

“His work is exactly what I want for my kids,” said Brennen’s father, David Brennen, dean of the University of Kentucky law school since 2009. “I want my kids to think about the world beyond themselves and to try to do something to improve the condition of others. I think Andrew is doing that in his own unique way. He is well suited for it. He does research, he talks to people and he comes up with ideas that are resounding with a number of people.”

In October, Andrew Brennen spoke at the Gates Foundation Education Learning Forum in Seattle.

Last week, he was the subject of an article in the Washington Post.

Andrew has a younger brother, Spenser, 16, who attends Lexington Catholic; and an older brother, Clarence, who is in culinary arts school in Virginia after serving 10 years in the Navy, said David Brennen.

The Brennens moved to Lexington in 2008 when Andrew was in middle school. Just prior to that, David Brennen said, they lived in Washington, D.C., where the elder Brennen was the deputy director of the Association of American Law Schools. David Brennen said he made sure that his son witnessed activities associated with Barack Obama becoming the first black president.

In Lexington, Andrew Brennen said, he sought activities like speech and debate to supplement his classroom work. He responded to a call from the Prichard Committee in 2012 to get student opinions on issues and became a student member of the Prichard Committee.

Brennen said one of his first efforts through the Prichard Committee was writing an op-ed piece on teacher effectiveness. In the spring of 2013, he went to Washington for a semester as a Senate page. He said it was a role he got with the permission of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. Brennen lived in dorms and took high school classes while working in the Senate.

When he returned to Lexington in the fall of 2013, he helped found the Prichard Committee’s Student Voice Team and became part of that group’s successful campaign in the 2014 General Assembly to restore and increase public school funding.

The “We Can’t Wait” campaign was a chance “to effect real change,” Andrew Brennen said. “That was really appealing.

“I think it’s fair to say that the Prichard Committee and the Student Voice Team was one of my most impactful classrooms.

“I learned more through this work than I ever did in school, and I guess that goes to show how we can be rethinking education in this country,” Brennen said.

Eliza Jane Schaeffer, a fellow member of the student voice team and a senior at Henry Clay High School, said, “I don’t think we would be where we are now without Andrew Brennen because he has an incredible vision for the organization, and he does a really good job of following through with that vision.”

Rachel Belin, senior director of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, said, “As someone who helped found and guide the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team over the last three-plus years, Andrew has had some pretty high-profile experiences — from testifying in front of legislative committees; to speaking in front of thousands at professional development conferences, rallies, and policy summits; to publishing countless opinion pieces in major newspapers. But throughout it all, I have watched him show the most passion when he is decidedly out of the spotlight, prompting students from classrooms across Kentucky — and more recently, the country — in roundtable discussions he facilitates to share their stories about our education system.”

Earlier this year, Student Voice Team members were told that, by law, students could not get a seat on the superintendent screening committee in Fayette County.

In advocating for a Kentucky bill so a student could sit on superintendent selection screening committees, Student Voice Team members researched, drafted the language of the bill, enlisted a sponsor, lobbied, reached out to advocates, wrote opinion pieces, testified before the House and Senate Education Committees, took to social media, promoted a petition yielding nearly 2,000 signatures, met with editorial boards, wrote press releases, and held a rally on the steps of the state Capitol that drew several hundred supporters. While the effort failed, it brought national attention to the Student Voice Team.

Although Andrew Brennen was away at college, as a director of the team he helped with the entire process, said Schaeffer.

“Andrew does not cut corners,” said Belin. “He has been working tirelessly, night and day, consistently over three years now to frame academic arguments, build relationships with student leaders and other education advocates, initiate dialogues with policy makers and research experts, and read everything he can get his hands on to build the case for why students should be more fully integrated in the work of the Prichard Committee and broader efforts to improve our schools.

“Among Andrew’s greatest strengths as a leader in the student voice movement is his deep capacity to support and engage other students in the effort,” Belin said.

“He never set out to ‘give students a voice’ because from the beginning, he saw his role as someone who could amplify and elevate the voices of others.”

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears

Getting involved

Students wanting to get involved with Student Voice may contact Andrew Brennen:

Twitter: @AEBrennen