Coachella Valley districts partner with local newspaper to amplify student voices

A unique initiative is taking place in the Coachella Valley, bringing a fresh stream of student ideas to the arid desert climate. A partnership between three local districts — Coachella Valley Unified School District, Desert Sands USD and Palm Springs USD — and the Desert Sun newspaper is bringing student perspectives to the entire community.

Evolving from an original idea from Desert Sun education reporter Jennifer Cortez to spotlight a student of the week, collaborative discussions with the districts’ high school principals evolved the idea into one where students could contribute more than a profile.

“Desert Dialogues became the result of a collaborative partnership with the three public K-12 school districts across the Coachella Valley,” Cortez said. “At the Desert Sun, we originally pitched a project that would result in spotlighting students every week and it evolved into one that would amplify student voices in our community to demonstrate how young people are responding to current local issues and topics.”

The partnership was just a few weeks in at the time of this writing, but school representatives reported that student engagement was surpassing what they expected.

“All three districts were interested in participating because it was an opportunity to spotlight our students, and that’s the focus of everything we do,” said Andrea Pasolini, Coachella Valley USD public information officer. “For a few years, we have had an Athlete of the Week recognition, but this time, we are looking deeper beyond successful students to allow all ninth- through 12th-grade to express their opinions, and for the community to vote based on their responses. We didn’t want a popularity contest where students with the most connections would win.”

How it works

Cortez emails a prompt to the district contacts each Monday, which is shared through district communication channels. Submissions from students are accepted through Thursday. Cortez reviews the submissions and chooses five to eight to run anonymously in the following Monday’s paper. Readers then vote and the student who receives the most votes is revealed the following week with their submission and a Q&A.

More than 100 high schoolers from across the Coachella Valley voiced their opinions in the inaugural Desert Dialogues prompt, which was inspired by reporting on the 20th annual Desert Smash event, a high-profile celebrity tennis event that raises funds for charitable causes. Students were asked: What local cause or issue would you choose to support if you were a philanthropist and why? What factors would you consider to determine which local causes you would endorse?

The first winner was Brenda Rodriguez, a junior from Desert Mirage High School in Coachella Valley USD, who addressed the socioeconomic inequalities that marginalized communities in the eastern Coachella Valley have faced, with a focus on residents from the Arellano Mobile Home Park — whose water contained arsenic levels above federal legal limits.

The winner of another prompt, Brisa Zepeda from Indio High School of Desert Sands USD, discussed the impact of the Coachella Valley on their identity and future goals. She wrote that her understanding of “true humble hard work” was shaped by her parents’ dedication in pushing forward in life, particularly as farmworkers in the desert. “This inspired me to … become more politically active in my community,” she wrote, “and create organizations where I can help farmworkers, provide transportation for the workers, help disadvantaged communities, bring medical centers and more opportunities to the valley.”

The prompts reinforce how young people are intricately connected to the community and give them a sense of ownership, according to Desert Sun Features Editor Niki Kottmann. “We view this as an opportunity not just for young people in this community to be heard, but as an opportunity for young people to interact with their local newspaper and learn more about what the paper is producing, because many of our prompts for the students will be based on recent stories we’ve published,” she said.

Reader responses have also been positive, with several reaching out to Cortez to share messages that echoed a common sentiment: the students’ thoughtfulness left them optimistic about the future of the Coachella Valley.