Student SoundOff: A Seat At The Table

“We can make our voice louder, we can make them hear us by forming this group and doing something positive.” – Brainerd High School senior

“I just feel like if they listen, some things wouldn’t happen like they do. We’d have better health, better teachers, better everything.” – Howard senior 

Teachers, counselors, and parents across Hamilton County have found common places to work with one another across school lines. These places vary from professional development workshops to organizations that support various schools. What’s interesting is that there are very few spaces for students from different schools to meet that aren’t competitive. We may see one another at a football game, mock trial competition, or maybe even when we take the ACT, but when do we get the chance to collaborate and improve our community?

Student voice is integral when discussing issues in our education system because we spend more time in our county’s schools than any other group. It’s hard to form a cohesive student voice when we don’t have opportunities to come together; remaining separated can be detrimental if we truly want to make change. We are working to create these opportunities for Hamilton County students. We started by organizing Student Roundtables, inviting students from every high school in Hamilton County to share their thoughts on our school system.

We recently held a student roundtable at The Howard School. We were happy to have six students representing 5 different high schools attend because having a smaller group allowed us to have a much more intimate and deep discussion. They were shy at first but as we began working through icebreakers, asking questions such as “What is one thing you believe your school is doing well?”, we saw ideas begin to flow. A student from Brainerd responded, ”My teacher’s text me daily asking “are you okay”. We have teachers that do that. We have teachers that care.” When asked if they feel like they have a say in decision making students expressed frustration in being left out – “Our students don’t really have a voice. They listen to us, but it goes in one ear and out the other. We don’t have a voice.”

We also asked questions such as, “If we were going to go to the schools and out to the community, what would be the best groups to reach out to?” A student responded, I think y’all should reach out to anybody honestly. You have students from hard places, like the hood, but they want to do good, to better themselves. You should reach out to everybody.” Another focused on the necessity of provided food and snacks for participants – “Ima be honest…. Food. That’s like the number one thing. They would be like, “shoot, they got us free food.”

Email nick@unifi-ed and akia@unifi-ed if you’re interested in learning more about our Student Team, and if you’d like to attend or host a Student Roundtable in your area.

Are you a high school student passionate about education and student voice? Apply to join our team and become a Student Organizer! Click through for a job description.

Student SoundOff: Lessons from Lexington

Have you heard of the Rachel Maddow show? What about the Washington Post? We’re sure you have, and those are just two of the places the Prichard Committee’s Student Voice Team has been featured. They found themselves gaining national media attention after introducing a bill to the Kentucky State Legislature that would have given students the opportunity to hold a voting seat on the board that elects school system superintendents. Despite the fact that their bill was struck down, due to the addition of two controversial amendments, the group’s actions are one of the best examples of students advocating for their education in our country.

After speaking with their adult director, Rachel Belin, we were invited to attend the Prichard Committee’s Student Voice Team’s Retreat in Lexington, Kentucky. Around half of the students attending were new members to the group, so the retreat also served as an orientation. We had the opportunity to learn about the group’s mission, history, and future plans. Learning from their experiences, and especially their formative period, gave us so much to take back home to Chattanooga.

FullSizeRender-5

The day started with a slideshow about the Prichard Committee’s work in addition to the Student Voice Team’s efforts to include students in their education. The day consisted of presentations and workshops, primarily led by the high school students. One of the things that really caught our attention, was when a student spoke about their work and said “It was my first time seeing students take a stand.” Despite the fact that students make up 100% of a school system’s constituents, we so rarely have the opportunity to work alongside adults as partners in our education, rather than mere recipients.

While the issues students face in Kentucky are different from the issues here in Hamilton County, we all share a passion for student voice. The Student Voice Team pushed for legislation that would allow a student to be a voting member on the panels that select the superintendents for school districts. Here, we hope to create avenues for students to be directly involved in the decisions that affect us. That could like having a strong group, such as a Student Government Association, in every school. It could also mean publicizing that there is a student on the school board, and that the superintendent has a student advisory committee, and allowing students to apply to participate, in place of being selected by a principal.

FullSizeRender-7

The second major lesson we learned from attending the retreat, is one related to accessibility: how do we make our group accessible to all students? While the Student Voice Team has a harder job when it comes to this, considering they are a statewide organization, the answer is a bit more simple for our group. In addition to providing transportation to and from events, it means plugging into local communities and engaging with students where they are. Much like the school board, as student organizers, we should work for and with students, not the other way around.

We are currently working to form a Student Voice Team, and we want you to get involved! If you want to help change public education for the better, you can start by filling out our short survey, which will also give you a chance to win one of two $25 Visa gift cards. At the end, you can choose to learn more, and we’ll reach out to you about getting involved in student roundtables, our group, and more. We hope to hear from you soon!

FullSizeRender-6