Amplifying Youth Voice & Acting on it

Students and youth have a voice. Much of the time, however, their voices are drowned out by adults at schools, in their families and in the broader community.   Why do we fail as a society to hear those voices and help youth act on their ideas, interests and passions? What would be the benefit for civil society if we invited youth in as authentic partners to address the challenges in schools and communities? What would be the benefits for youth if they served as true partners in community and school challenges?IMG_1114 

These were just some of the ideas actively explored at the International Seminar on Amplifying Student Voice & Partnership in Burlington VT, hosted by UP for Learning.   From July 6-8, nearly 70 practitioners, researchers, policy makers AND youth engaged in deep discussion and planning around many critical issues involving youth voice and partnership.

We surveyed many exciting initiatives and models that demonstrate that youth voice and partnership works and why it’s important. Hosting the conference in Vermont allowed us to take a deep dive into Act 77, a statewide initiative that provides student voice and choice unparalleled by any other statewide program in the country. Act 77 encourages flexible pathways to graduation through dual enrollment and early college programs, personalized learning plans and work-based internships. Act 77 also provides for competency-based assessments that allow students to demonstrate academic proficiency through knowledge and skills around tasks that are of interest to that student.

We also had the privilege of learning about the important work spearheaded by UP for Learning across Vermont. They work to increase youth engagement by developing youth adult partnerships in learning to ensure that every young person has the skills, self-confidence and opportunities to assume meaningful roles in shaping their learning and lives. Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together (YATST) is UP for Learning’s signature program and helps support a network of youth and adult teams committed to building school communities in which learning is engaging for everyone and students are fully empowered. Getting to Y is one of their other key programs which allows student to lead their schools in examining risk data and taking steps to strengthen their schools and communities, based on their findings.

UP for Learning’s programs were highlighted by high school students who led these initiatives in their schools.   Their authentic voices reinforced how competent and committed young people are when we give them opportunities and support to play meaningful roles. Everyone was inspired by their stories.

We explored a plethora of exciting international programs that demonstrate that the youth voice movement is a global one.   We learned about the Organizing Bureau of European School Student Union and the International Students’ Association and the authentic voice they give to students in slideEuropeans schools educational systems. We were inspired by the work in Ontario Canada and the Student Trustees Association which supports the placement of student trustees , elected by their peers, to bring student voice to district school board tables. Their mission is to present the student perspective to improve the quality of education in schools across the province.

The group closed on Friday with a number of important open space forum topics that included discussions about how to create Centers for Youth Voice and Partnership to further promote this work, what strategies could be employed to change adult culture and allow for expanded youth voice and strategizing about how we could influence the United States to ratify the United Nations Children’s Rights Convention.

There were many (MANY) practical and applied practices and structures that came out as important lessons or directions for amplifying student voice and partnership. Some of the highlights include:

  • Advocating for student representation on local, regional and state boards of education.
  • Sharing Vermont’s flexible pathways initiatives with other state and regional educational authorities and encouraging these entities to adopt more student-centered approaches to education that promote voice
  • Expand the work of students/adult school teams and advisory councils that work on school change, reform, improved school climate and inclusion. Models that support such work include UP for Learning, Neutral Zone’s Youth Driven Spaces and SoundOut

Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child simply yet eloquently states the right of youth voice: children have the right to participate and have their voices heard when adults make decisions that affect them. When adults support and amplify this principle they’ll see how amazing and competent young people are, how our school and community challenges can be better addressed and we’ll support young people to be active participants in a democratic society.

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