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The Case for Student Voices

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Fervent believer in meaningful conversation to provoke change. Always ready to talk politics, Parks and Rec., and ice cream flavors.

Schools can change the world. They can address the roots of biases, ignorance and misinformation within entire generations. This power can’t be found in any other institution. However, schools throughout the United States aren’t doing a good job of equitably distributing resources for the entire student population. Mostly because they are misidentifying where the solution comes from: it begins not with school districts talking to one another, nor even with school districts talking solely to teachers; instead it begins with school districts talking to their students.

In the status quo, students are pitifully overlooked as a resource. Students’ innate ability to question their surroundings and challenge the existence of outdated systems is unparalleled. It’s when school districts acknowledge and utilize this resource that they become truly able to identify and solve for some of the most pressing issues facing the student body.

My school district has made a worthy attempt at reaching out to its students, but it took time for them to realize they needed to. With little more than a gas station, a feed store, and a city council, my district came into existence from humble means. Today, we are a bustling and growing urban center with development happening at an unprecedented rate. The transition that came from this level of development reshaped the very essence of the schools within. However, the school district’s inability to react to this change and address students’ needs was unacceptable. This dissatisfaction culminated around 2010 when it became obvious that something needed to change to address the disconnect between the district and the people they supposedly represented.

The solution: A student advisory group

The concept is simple. Once a month a group of approximately 80 students from around the region come to a district building and discuss problems within their schools whilst brainstorming solutions. The school district gets invaluable insight into the life of the students of whom they serve and, in exchange, the students master sets of leadership and problem-solving skills necessary for everyday life. The district also provides pizza. (Not, of course, to imply that students cannot be civically engaged without some sort of trade-off, but pizza never hurts).

As of right now, the individuals that participate in my district’s SAG are addressing “-isms” and “-phobias”, the lack of environmental policies, mental health, and student safety (just to name a few). These high schoolers are taking responsibility for a lack of common-sense policy, and they’re becoming more aware and more passionate about the larger systemic issues that are prominent within the United States as a whole.

Student advisory groups empower the student body to speak up, to make changes and to become more aware of the issues that impact them most. When asked why student advisory groups matter, Audrey Turril, a junior at Castle View High School said, “It matters because we matter. We’re impacted as well as the impact within this group, and that kind of authority is super powerful.” Student advisory groups start the process of engagement within the context of larger vital problems in the world today. They embrace the undeniable truth that civically aware students solve for critical flaws in their surroundings.

This is where the benefits of student advisory groups begin, but as our coordinator, Mr. Derek Chaney reminds us, “It’s a two-way street.” Student advisory groups help the students become more involved, but they also provide insight to the district on what changes and policies are most necessary to make to provide the best opportunities to the students. Chaney continues, “Just look at this meeting, you have two school board members listening to you guys talk about these big issues.” Students in the advisory group have the opportunity to speak to some of the most influential people in charge of their education. That’s the communication that matters when it comes to making a real difference in education.

School districts need to recalibrate their focus. Not on how to improve efficiency nor how to cut costs, but how to best address the needs of students. David Ray, the president of Douglas County’s School Board says that these groups accomplish this goal because board members “immediately get a pulse of what’s most important to the students.” It’s this instant ability for the students to express their concerns that allows them to be properly addressed and allows the district as a whole to grow.

The United States’ education system suffers from a lack of connectivity, from a lack of communication and a lack of collaboration. If there is to be any remedy for these issues, it must start with the party that matters most. It has to start with the students. The benefit of a young mind in places of change and action is the undeniable diversification of thought. Not only does the presence of a student advisory group teach the importance of leadership, collaboration and critical thinking to students, but it revitalizes district officials as to the why behind their jobs. It remains the subtle yet necessary reminder that the reason that they do what they do, ought to be for us, for the students.

“Why does student voice matter? Oh my, it’s what we do.”

“It’s critical that they [the students] feel proud about what their education is and that they feel that it’s preparing them in the right way.” Ray states. He and his board are reaching out to the students they represent; although it is in no way a flawless system, it is the first major and necessary step towards real change in the education system, change that entails putting the needs of students first.

Schools can change the world. Not because they can teach, but because they can learn. They can learn from the insight and discovery of their pupils, and they can adapt to meet ever-changing needs. Education can never be standardized, but it can change to provide the right opportunities, and those opportunities, those changes, start with student voice.