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Critical Exposure: students focus on reforming schools

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Public policy is normally the province of self-described “wonks,” those who, so the word suggests, traffic in big ideas, not so much in the gritty problems that occupy most of our day-to-day lives; say, a school’s leaking roof or broken water fountain.

But Mr. Levner, a former 5th-grade teacher, said that changing public policy is “critical as part of school reform.”

“That’s what makes [reform] systemic,” he said. “That’s what keeps it from being a Band-Aid and just a quick infusion of a few dollars to fix up a few tiles in one classroom.”

Still, raising the public’s awareness about schools’ problems remains a core part of Critical Exposure’s mission. Each year, the organization holds an exhibit of student photos, accompanied by often-detailed captions, at a local art gallery.

“It’s amazing to watch students walk into a nice art gallery, usually for the first time in their lives, and see their photographs blown up and framed and hanging on a wall, and have a whole bunch of strangers standing around, looking at their work, talking about their work,” Levner said. “Equally or more important is that those photos are always accompanied by writing, captions, where the students are telling their stories. For a lot of students, seeing people stand there and read their words is really powerful.”

Students have learned, too, that their photos can reach more than just strangers in an art gallery. Levner said that, as part of Critical Exposure’s work with other organizations to increase funding for Maryland public schools’ facilities, students came to the state capitol in Annapolis and whisked away state legislators to share their photos and stories. One legislator was so taken by the photos that he distributed copies to fellow lawmakers. The legislator, according to Levner, said that the photos helped in passing a bill that increased funding for the schools.

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