As schools go back in session amidst rising COVID cases, they face a mountain of difficult decisions. When should masks be worn? What will trigger a return to remote learning? What strategies should be used to boost mental health and social connection? Given the huge impact these decisions have on students’ learning experiences and social and emotional wellbeing, it seems important that schools not just make assumptions on students’ behalf. Fortunately, some schools are recognizing how important it is to ensure that student voices, often sidelined, are not lost in the tumult.
That became clear this past spring as I interviewed school leaders, students, and a teacher at Common Ground High School in New Haven, CT for the Think Forward New England project at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). The school leaders, students, and teacher whom I interviewed were unequivocal about the power of student voices. In addition, they revealed a range of impactful strategies for equitably including those voices at the table.
Here are four ideas and strategies that came through in Common Ground’s school profile:
1. Set up systems to track student participation.
What if opportunities for student voice were for all students, not just those inclined to take initiative?
A staff Pathways team at Common Ground leads the charge for getting every student involved in opportunities to exercise their leadership and raise their voice. Candi Fulcher, a teacher who is on that team, said that it’s needed because student participation is still not ubiquitous: “Most of our opt-in opportunities are opted into by the same students. So we try to find the outliers—students who may not be engaged in what we’re offering.” The team relies heavily on spreadsheets that track who participates in what. “There’s a lot of cross referencing of what everyone is doing, and who isn’t doing anything,” said Fulcher. “Then we figure out what those students are interested in, and strategize about how to plug them into opportunities for leadership and voice in their areas of interest.”
2. Onboard student interns and program staff.
What if students took on formal, paid, or credit-bearing roles to help run the school and support its administration?
Every year as part of Common Ground’s course selection process, one option students can choose is an internship with Joel Tolman, Lead Teacher for Student Pathways, to help with initiatives to improve the school. Students in this internship developed the school’s end-of-semester course evaluation forms, and continue to administer and analyze them every semester. “I couldn’t do my job without [these students],” Tolman said. Before the pandemic, these student interns also developed a visual representation of Common Ground’s four-year school model from the student perspective, and used their work to inform the Pathways team Tolman leads. Additionally, the interns regularly host feedback sessions with their peers, which Tolman said have been essential sources of information about how students are doing during the pandemic. Dayanara, who has been an Educational Change intern, reflected that the internship was one key way she has been able to use her voice at school.
3. Open up student government to all students.
What if, instead of a static elected body focused primarily on school social activities, student government was a student-driven forum for equitable youth participation in voicing opinions about issues students care about at school?
In 2019, Common Ground changed its approach to student government. Dayanara, a senior, said, “We did have a student government…and you had to get elected from your Guidance [class].” But elected representatives weren’t always fully engaged, while students who were unelected, but interested in participating, were shut out. The school switched gears to an opt-in afterschool program. “All you have to do is sign up, and you can get in,” Dayanara said. “They just want students to come up and take ownership of their learning.” When students identify an issue they would like to change, Fulcher, who is the group’s staff advisor, helps the group identify the right staff member to talk to. “Usually the administration and staff members at the school are very open to ideas,” Dayanara said.
4. Include students on governing boards.
What if schools didn’t just serve students, but were accountable to them?
Common Ground recently created two seats on its Board of Directors for students, meaning that Executive Director Monica Maccera Filppu is officially accountable to youth representatives. That’s a powerful nod to youth voice—and also an extremely public one during a political moment when school board meetings can be intensely charged. Maccera Filppu is careful not to overburden students. “With a real role comes responsibility,” she reflected. “[During COVID] we have been thoughtful about giving students roles that don’t have outsized responsibilities.” For example, Common Ground’s two student board members were invited to the meeting in which the board voted to start the school year with a hybrid model, but excused from attending if they didn’t want to, due to the sensitivity of the issue. “I could have pushed [for them to attend], but it would not be fair to force them into a really difficult conversation publicly,” said Maccera Filppu.