We Need to Aim Higher Than Just "Getting Through School"

Settling with the current state of primary education isn’t doing our current generation of students any favors.

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

As I wrapped up a roundtable with a group of students on Student Voice’s Tour Across America’s Schools, I walked to the exit with the principal, giving him the cliffnotes version of the conversation I had just had with his students. I told him the major issues students discussed: dress code, a lack of deeper learning, a rampant stress culture that radically impacted the students' mental health, the school food-- when he interrupted me and replied,

“Well, that’s just how it is. Every student complains about it. We had to deal with it when I was a kid, they’ll get through it, too”

In this particular conversation, the “it” he was referring to was school food. It’s an issue that we hear about in many public schools and, unfortunately, a hard one to change considering how it’s funded. But, it’s not impossible.

School food may suck. In all four public schools I went to between kindergarten and 12th grade it certainly did. But, just because a problem has existed for multiple generations does not make it impossible to improve or unworthy of change. This principal treated terrible school food like a rite of passage we all must endure to move on to the next stage of life. He may have swept the issue under the rug, but this issue that is inconvenient for him is one that impacts school climate and student well being across the country.

Just a few weeks ago in Bridgeport, CT, one student told us that she starves herself throughout the school day because the food is so uneatable. In Lexington, SC, students shared that they risk in school suspension to leave campus during the day to get lunch because the school food is so bad. When 30.4 million students in the U.S. qualify for free and reduced lunch and depend on school for meals, the issue is not one to laugh at or brush aside, regardless of how long it has been a problem and how unchangeable it seems to be.

This isn’t about school food. The “it” in this principal's statement could have been about any issue that students face. This is about adults brushing off students' concerns just because it’s the way that it’s always been. Just because we—people that have already finished K-12 school— survived something doesn’t mean we can’t make it better. Surviving school is a pretty low bar after all; why settle for students to just survive when schools can become places where students feel safe, secure, and supported as they cultivate their interests and have experiences that led them to discover their passions? If our goal at the end of the day is for students to just survive school, we are not doing enough for them.