Monday, August 29, 2016

Unleash Student Voice to Make Schools Better

| by Eliza Jane Schaeffer, Student Voice Team |

Eliza Jane is chair emeritus of the School Governance Committee and strategy and development coordinator for the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team. She is a recent graduate of Henry Clay High School and a rising first year at Dartmouth College. 

This month, Kentucky students begin their annual mass migration from backyards and summer jobs to school rooms and study halls. And while we give up our borrowed right to lay in bed all day and watch Netflix, we also give up a more fundamental right, one that older Americans take for granted.

The moment we step into a school building, we forfeit our right to be heard. In our lives outside of school, we are technically free to comment on and change the policies and practices which shape our environment. But as students, a role we are required by law to play, we lack this ability.

My claims are not simply complaints and clamor.

In evaluating the data from the nearly 300 Kentucky schools and districts we surveyed, we found that 57% of schools do not offer their students an outlet for feedback and fewer than one in ten district school boards and school councils have student members. These statistics come fresh from the Student Voice Team’s Students As Partners report, a year-long, youth-led investigation into the merits of supporting students to serve more meaningful roles in school decision-making. 

In spite of this discouraging data, the report indicates real potential for growth. Our results show that nearly half of Kentucky superintendents and principals would be willing to add a student member to the decision-making body under their jurisdiction. This figure provides an opening to further the conversation about what is possible when the primary stakeholders are more fully supported to participate in school governance.

For inspiration, look no further than Northern Kentucky. In Boone County, high school senior Michael Henry serves as an advisory member on the board of education and as the head of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, a group which meets monthly to brainstorm and implement ideas for school improvement, hold question and answer sessions with the superintendent, listen to guest speakers, and interact with district officials.

Henry told the Student Voice Team that the board members “really appreciate the student’s opinion.” More importantly, he shared that students in the district are now excited about and involved in the decision-making process and will routinely stop him in the hallway to share their opinion on a matter the school board is currently discussing. Having a chance to meaningfully contribute to school improvement “is pushing them to get more involved,” he said.

Our research shows that supporting students in shaping their learning environment as Boone County did generates self-efficacy, agency, and opportunities for deeper learning. It also benefits the school system as a whole. A more productive, engaged student body translates to higher performances in the classroom, higher levels of informed discussion, and school policy solutions that reflect the experiences of all stakeholders.

With these education benefits in mind, we hope more of Kentucky’s elected officials, teachers, administrators, and students will embrace a school system that both fully recognizes--and unleashes--the potential of student voice to make our schools the best they can possibly be. And perhaps next year, as our students return to the classroom and lose their summer glow, they will not also lose their right to be heard.

To read the Students as Partners report and learn more about the Student Voice Team’s research, reasoning, and recommendations, click here.

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