The Student Union was started in 1995 by a group of young people who were concerned about not receiving the quality of education that they deserved. They decided that if school reform were going to be successful, it would have to involve students as leaders for change. At that time the White Dog Café was starting a non-profit called Urban Retrievers, which agreed to sponsor the Student Union. As the Student Union grew, it became clear that it was the most exciting part of Urban Retrievers’ programming. In March of 2001 Urban Retrievers’ board decided to officially change the name of the organization to the Philadelphia Student Union.
The Student Union started with a small group of students mainly from magnet schools. In the first two years of its existence the message of PSU reached students in the neighborhood high schools. Neighborhood school students flocked to PSU because of their desperate need to make changes at their schools, which lacked books, qualified teachers, and healthy school cultures. In 1997 the organization opened chapters at Simon Gratz High School and West Philadelphia High School. From this point forward the Student Union’s primary membership became neighborhood school students from West and North Philadelphia. We continue to have active participation from magnet school students as well.
Some early campaigns focused on simple issues such as ensuring that students had textbooks and improving building conditions. As the Student Union grew, so did its ability to take on more sophisticated issues such as ensuring meaningful and engaging instruction and transforming school culture at individual schools. The Student Union also launched citywide campaigns on issues such as equitable school funding and stopping privatization that mobilized thousands of students. In 2003 students won a major victory when they convinced the District to open Student Success Centers to offer students a range of services in ten schools.
The organization has grown from the dream of a few students to a strong organization that has allowed students themselves to become a major force for improving schools in Philadelphia. Over 3,500 young people have completed the Student Union’s leadership development program. These young people learned how to bring people together to solve problems. Many of our former members have become active in organizing, youth work and advocacy in their colleges and communities.