Huddled in a wooden bungalow, dozens watch as their leader, a ponytailed 16-year-old in a T-shirt emblazoned with "take back the system," stands up and energizes her peers to be a force for change.
"We need to bring awareness to the campus," said Justine Nakase, one of the group's co-creators. "We're going in a direction the student government is not going in."
Her South Pasadena student organization wants more toilet paper in the girls' bathroom. It wants builders to stop leaving loaded nail guns around campus. It also wants teachers to close the gap between regular and honors classes.
Most important, its members want a voice in their education.
Inspired by a history class on labor unions, a group of students at the school are calling themselves a union to push for changes at the school. The students pay no dues, plan no strikes and are not legally a union. But experts and labor leaders say the group's efforts hark back to the original definition of a union.
"It just really shows what unionism is all about, not what we've come to think of what unionism is," said Sara Horowitz, director of Working Today, a New-York based group that organizes laborers. "Unions are really just people coming together."
The students, however, are aware of the weight the name carries.
"The word union evokes unity and gives us power," Justine said. "Other names like 'forum' make it sound like you're going to talk a lot. Student union gives it that kind of '70s uprising--a 'power to the people'--kind of thing."
So, she organized. She talked to students. She advertised in the school paper. She got a teacher to act as the group's consultant.
Everyone was shocked when 50 people, including the new principal, turned up at their first meeting last month.
For Principal Janet Anderson, seeing what the students are doing is a little like looking in a mirror. As a student, she was South Pasadena High School's student body vice president and later became president of a teachers union.
"The former principal worked really hard to talk to people, but the kids didn't feel they were heard," Anderson said, adding that the teenagers have a right to form such a group.
Despite the initial excitement, Jeff Cox, the group's faculty sponsor--who looks a little like a weathered activist himself, with his graying ponytail and loafers--sees a lot of work ahead. He has taught social studies at the school for more than 30 years and has seen movements for change come and go. Trying to affect how teachers and students relate to each other will be the group's biggest challenge, he's convinced.
"Toilet paper in the bungalows is superficial. They'll be successful, but it'll be a wash," Cox said. "If they can make changes in the role they play in teacher selection, curriculum and schedule selection--now that's real change."
The South Pasadena students' ire peaked last year after a number of on-campus incidents. Some students said administrators gave murky reasons for firing a beloved tennis coach, daily classes were changed to every other day without student input, and not enough safety measures were taken, they say, to protect students during construction at the school.
Administration officials defended some of their actions, saying they are not legally allowed to share reasons for dismissals. Anderson added that they did listen to concerns about the new class scheduling but, in their research, found that students at schools with similar scheduling did better on exams. She did concede that the school could have done more to ensure safety during construction.
The students' budding activism reminds Anderson of her own youth in the 1970s. The heady atmosphere of the civil rights movement had trickled down to the high school, she recalled.
Anderson and others fought the administration to let the students leave campus at lunchtime and to drop the dress code. Nearby schools in Pasadena started doing the same things.
Anderson hopes students and teachers will work together on some of the problems, such as safety, which also is a teacher concern. She said that she would consider expanding the administration hiring panel to include students and that she welcomes their input on class selection.
Student activist Juan Garcia said students have more power than they realize.
"A school is not a school without the students," Garcia said.
In 1997, Garcia helped organize a similar group at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. Now called the Power Project, the students started by discussing such issues as sexual harassment. The group eventually joined with another organization and took on issues in the community.
"There are so many issues that aren't addressed by administrators, superintendents and politicians," Justine said.