Chicago’s Student Voice Committee Program is a Model for the Nation

Chicago Public Schools takes an innovative approach to implementing student voice.

Passionate about civic education and youth activation. Big fan of iced coffee and Broadway.

On Friday, April 5th, we were fortunate to be able to attend the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Student Voice Summit in Chicago, IL. Chicago Public Schools are unique in that they have created a Student Voice Committee program, where Student Voice Committees (SVCs) are formed in each school to form student-adult partnerships that address the issues facing the school. The SVCs work to give students leadership opportunities, improve school climate, and create true communication between adults and students within school. At the CPS Student Voice summit, students from SVCs across the district came together to share best practices, learn from each other, and provide feedback to several department leaders from the district on curriculum and programs.

12:00 Lunch Time

Our day started at 12:00 as students and adults arrived in downtown Chicago for a full afternoon of school advocacy. Students ate lunch and connected with student leaders from other schools across the district. CPS were actually not in session on April 5th, so all of these students were still coming on their day off because they were so passionate about their student voice work.

12:30: Introductions, goal setting, and centering ourselves

Once all the students and adults arrived, we circled up to center ourselves in the day. We went around the room and introduced ourselves, sharing our goals for the day. Representatives from different departments within CPS introduced themselves and we each took a minute to bring ourselves into the moment and mentally prepare for a day of conversations.

12:45: A gallery walk

Four departments from within CPS attended the summit: Physical Education (PE), Teacher Leadership, Career Pathways, and Literacy. Each department took over a different corner of the room and presented to a small group of students different policy ideas that they had or asked students for ideas and suggestions for their department to pursue.

The PE Department wanted to create a uniform policy that did not body shame or cause any insecurity for students and also allowed them to be comfortable while moving around and being active. The department leaders had come up with two new ideas: create a catalog of options for students to choose from or allow students to buy their own athletic to wear to class. Not wanting to go any further in the process without asking students, the department asked students to add their thoughts and suggestions to the wall.

In the Teacher Leadership corner, each student had the opportunity to write what they wish their teachers knew about them or what they wished their teachers did differently on a post it note. Having this information helped the Teacher Leadership district leaders know not only how students are feeling and how they can support them in conversations with current teachers, but also gave them information to pass on to new teachers in the coming school years.

Knowing that career readiness is ever changing as they job markets change with the invention of new technology and industry, the CPS Career Pathways department wants to make sure that they are doing everything they can to prepare their students for success after high school and college. In the gallery walk students shared what industries they would be interested in joining after graduation and gave ideas on new programs and lessons that would be helpful for them as they think about life after graduation.

At the same time, in the Literacy corner, the district leaders had one question, “do you like reading?” While many students love reading when they first learn how, this love fades as they get older, reading becomes more challenging, and students have less choice in what they read in class as they have to read the books that will be part of standardized tests. The literacy department at CPS is passionate about making sure that they are doing everything they can to instill a love of reading in their students through graduation and beyond. So, students had the chance to share the words they currently associate with reading and what words they want to associate with reading so that what they want is integrated into the department’s new strategic plan.

1:15: Focus groups

After getting a glimpse at what each department is working on through the gallery walk, students chose two departments to go to for a longer, roundtable-style focus group.

In the Career Pathways room, students sat in a circle and shared the ways in which they do feel prepared to go to college and enter the workforce, as well as ways that they did not feel prepared. Students also discussed the stigma around college and the pressure to attend a well known four year college. To break down these stigmas, the facilitators shared their own experiences with transferring schools and prioritizing academics and school climate over the name of the school, leading students to feel more comfortable.

In the  Teacher Leadership focus group, students expressed a desire to be part of the interview process for hiring new teachers as they have the unique of working with teachers more often than anyone else. Students want to be known as individual people, something that is hard to accomplish when they’re not the “star student” or when some teachers are leaving during the school year. The district facilitators gave students as much time as they wanted to share their thoughts about their teachers to incorporate into how they train new teachers as they begin with CPS.

In the PE room, when asked if they liked participating in PE or not, the room was split by gender: every boy in the group said that he liked PE and every girl wished that she didn’t have to participate. Female students shared that their space in PE classes is overrun by male students, who taunt them and say that they aren’t athletic enough to “hang with them”. Female students are discouraged by these attitudes and instead chose to sit out or just walk around the gym to avoid being taunted by the boys. This clearly disheartened the PE department leaders, who shared that PE was a powerful tool to teach wellness and fitness in both of their lives. Saddened to hear that these students were not getting the same thing out of their PE experience, the district leaders sought suggestions from students on how this problem could be solved.

2:00: discussion on student voice, reflection time for adults

Adults reflected on how helpful it was to hear student feedback and how every single department should be attending these events to obtain feedback. After all, if the curriculums and programs they’re creating aren’t working for students, what good are they? The adults saw that these are more than just kids, they’re students and changemakers and young people with powerful, well thought out ideas. They see how their schools work on a daily basis, they sit in class and receive the curriculum, they are the experts on whether school is working or not. Overall, the adults shared, this day was a powerful example of what student voice can look like a district level when the adults support the students, but let the young people lead the way.

2:30: Debrief, reflection, and calls to action

To say that the students at the CPS Student Voice Summit were impressive is an understatement. They chose to show up, use their voices, and speak up. These students reject the notion that because they’re not adults they cannot, and should not, have a seat the table and a say in the conversations about the issues and policies that impact them most. These CPS Students were so honest about how they were feeling about their education and how it was both negatively and positively impacting them. And they didn't stop there, they proceeded to give CPS professionals solutions to all problems the students were facing.  Although they may never reep the benefits of the of the changes and improvements to CPS, they have set a genuine foundation for the generations to come. We must remind ourselves as well as other students, that the most important thing we'll ever have is our voice, so we can never chose not to use it to impact those who are most important to us.

We believe that every school district show hold events like this CPS Student Voice  Summit, invest in Student Voice as CPS does, and give students spaces like CPS’ Student Voice Committees to discuss the state of their schools and advocate for student-centric policy. Until the day that this is the norm in every school district across the country, the Student Voice Chapters program is filling the void by giving students an infrastructure and resources to create change. If this sounds like something you would like to bring to your district and school, head over to stuvoice.org/chapters, register your school to start a Student Voice Chapter, and bring the Student Voice movement to your school!