High School is a place where many teens feel like their voices are not heard. Because of the vast academic requirements placed on schools, and teachers in particular — many feel like they simply don’t have the time to involve students deeply in their own learning, let alone in the broader issues of their school – like climate, governance or policy.
The research, however, is clear. Education and educational reform, to be as effective as possible, must have the direct involvement of students. Effective implementation of school change requires participation by and buy-in from all those involved, students no less than teachers. As one high schooler articulated in a recent study on student voice “we have the most to lose when our schools aren’t working right, and the most to gain when they are.”
Four years ago the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) received a federal grant for a Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) initiative. MDE is targeting the lowest performing high schools in Michigan to raise levels of academic achievement through new school reform programs. One of the primary goals of the initiative is to implement interventions to increase levels of school safety and student engagement. The MDE committed, in the S3 project, to have “student voice” help lead these changes.
MDE approached Neutral Zone in 2012 about supporting the S3 project. During that pilot year Neutral Zone’s approach included a year of training and coaching to support teams of both staff and students from six pilot high schools. The goals were to have each team research school issues related to their school reform efforts, plan and implement a project that addresses one of the issues and to create an Advisory that could support on-going student involvement.
Each of the schools crafted student-led projects and established “advisory” groups where students could continue to be involved in school change. During that first year a team from Willow Run High School worked on the consolidation with Ypsilanti Schools to ensure there was positive student investment as part of the creation of a new district. A joint student advisory from both districts formed to dialogue about concerns, fears and misconception while creating positive student action to join as one district. The group identified a number of challenges and proposed recommendations to the new school board that included on-going cross-school visits and activities before the merger, suggestions for creating a positive school culture and involving students in creating the new district identity.
Another schools that received support was Eastern High School in Lansing. Eastern’s students organized into the ‘Quaker Crew’ (their mascot is a Quaker) and chose “hallway safety” as the issue where they wanted to impact change. The school had recently added 7th and 8th graders into the high school building. As a result the halls were packed, especially during passing time, making them unsafe and inhibiting students from getting to class on time. The Quaker Crew developed a multi-tiered media campaign to raise awareness of the hallway issues. They created posters and a twitter feed whose messages were to get students to act safely and responsibly during passing time. Furthermore they created ‘buttons’ with the Quaker mascot and started a ‘get to class on-time’ campaign. The Crew would chose classes at random and when the bell rang gave every student who came to class on time a button. The buttons became a symbol of pride, and though a small token, actually made a difference in encouraging students to get to class on time.
As a result of the S3 pilot initiative, students across the six pilot high schools reported a greater sense of community, stronger student-staff partnerships, and less social exclusion. Additionally, based on pre/post surveys, students demonstrated statistically significant gains in a host of areas, featured in the table below.
This pilot year was so successful that MDE invited Neutral Zone to support a new cohort of schools during the 2013-14 academic years. That work continues with a final group this school year that will bring a total of 20 high schools receiving intensive “student voice” training over the past three years. Lori Roddy, Neutral Zone’s Executive Director says that “the school-based work has been very exciting, especially seeing students take genuine leadership roles in schools that they have not had the opportunity to undertake before. This project has allowed students to make decisions that affect things they care about, and experience the responsibility of seeing the impacts of their decisions.”