Public school students have varying perspectives about their education, many of which differ from and are impugned by parents, teachers, and administrators. Most school districts similar to Washoe County – with its 65,000 students – tend to have objectives that do not align with the goals of its students.
“It hasn’t been the norm for our public schools to listen to kids,” according to Michelle Hammond, Washoe County School District’s Student Voice Coordinator. Her program is making progress on changing that subjective construct. The positive response throughout the district has been deeply gratifying.
Hammond believes that shaping strategies to engage students has the potential to shed light on different approaches and solutions that vex educational leaders. Such insight creates a sense of student ownership, improves academic outcomes and opens the door for adults to better understand the motivations and perspectives of their students.
Hammond’s program builds a pressing case for civic engagement to empower its student councils to weigh in on important school matters and share their work with the district’s governing bodies and policymakers.
For Hammond, the Student Voice program encourages the adults in the district to look past their blind spots to partner with its students. The larger goals of the program are to align students’ interests with the district’s.
“Kids have always been very reactive agents, they come to school, they sit down, and they wait for adults to tell them what to do.”
History of Student Voice Movements
Efforts to add student voices to educational decision making can be dated back to the 1850s. Leo Tolstoy wrote about the principles of personal and community freedoms starting with the proposition that students are the most effective teachers of other children. Tolstoy outlined his theories in his widely-read treatise, “Who Should Teach Whom to Write, We the Peasant Children or the Peasant Children Us.”
A.S. Summerhill founded the Summerhill School in the U.K. to stress an unstructured, experience focused curriculum led by the pupils themselves.
In the US, the legendary educator Grace Pilon developed the “The Workshop Way,” that involved students as active participants in all school functions, most especially content instruction.
WCSD Student Voice
Michelle Hammond’s calm demeanor belies her passion for the program she runs, a program about inclusion, altering adult attitudes and personal growth. “With our Student Voice program, we’re truly talking about changing that mindset to where students come in as proactive agents and they ask for what they need. They’re responsible for their own education in many ways. So it’s a complete mind shift.”
Hammond explained her all-in commitment. “For me, Student Voice is not just listening to students, but it’s taking students’ voices and truly engaging them in the process of making our schools a better place by sharing power and sharing ownership of some of the problems both students and their schools face.”
Hammond’s Student Voice program emphasizes a social change process of meaningful engagement with the district. The program is designed to confront challenges related to budgeting, equity, equality, diversity, and racial discrimination. Students inject their voices into decisions that in the past were made exclusively at the district’s highest leadership levels.
Hammond’s day-to-day work for Student Voice is to prepare her students to become future leaders. “We look at every aspect of the data that the district collects. But it’s all just numbers only until we get out there to talk to kids and teachers about what we have found what the data is really telling us.”
She highlighted an example of when the students looked at the survey data of a local elementary school. They reported a gap in the interpretation of the data. “When you look at every school, across the board, there’s a gap between teacher and student perceptions,” said Hammond. Teachers surveyed said they had good relationships with and cared about kids. Hammond said that more than 90 percent of teachers said they care about the kids and maintain positive relationships with them.
However, when they looked at the student data, “Only 67 percent of our students reported that they had good relationships with teachers and that they had a teacher at school who cares about them. That’s hard feedback for a school teacher to receive.”
In retrospect, Hammond said the feedback created an opportunity for positive change. It helped them engage in a deeper conversation with students.
“What they found was that when the students really started talking about why that is, students didn’t trust adults. There were community issues where they had been taught and had home life situations where adults were involved with Child Protective Services and the authorities who may have arrested family members.”
Hammond said teachers had a lot of history to discern.
“Then, the teachers were able to see that ‘it’s not me personally, this is a larger societal issue in our community that we have got to address.’ They began to really understand that trust to those kids was more than just saying hello every day. They really had to work hard to build that trust.”
Hammond explained how the change occurred through the addition of social-emotional learning.
“They added a lot of our social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum to their daily practices. They became schools highly devoted to social-emotional learning with very strategic training involved. Morning routines became welcoming rituals; rituals that we’re emphasizing throughout the district, with daily lesson planning about social-emotional learning, and explicitly addressing how you build relationships.”
Hammond believes that without engaged and honestly caring adult models to emulate and learn from, students will naturally gravitate to shallow materialism and figure out for themselves what works outside the classroom instead of taking meaningful actions that affect their learning and their lives.
Hammond said that one of the biggest challenges is that the traditional leadership model has always recruited those kids who are natural-born leaders, the extroverts, a certain personality type.
“I noticed that the Student Advisory Board was amazing, some great kids, but it wasn’t diverse and equitable. I want to tackle the challenge to get more diverse students at the table, those who are those non-traditional leaders.“
Hammond described the barriers the program is still up against, one being the lack of available transportation. Another is the unfair expectation that a student needs good grades to secure an invite to the program. She believes that Student Voice should be open to all students, kids with bad grades and those kids who aren’t necessarily engaged. She says, “We’re missing that voice. Without them, it’s not Student Voice to me.”
A key element to the program’s unique attributes is shared ownership. It took the program several years to ensure student representation on the S.H.A.R.E Advisory Committee (Sexuality, Health and Responsibility Education). Student Voice made the original request two years ago. They were told no. They kept asking.
“There was some fear when you involve kids. We’ve tackled it. The Board of Trustees has now okayed two student members on that Council.”
Hammond’s immediate goal is to get the county’s marginalized communities more involved in the organization, from LQBTQ students to African Americans, Latinos and others.
“A lot of these kids don’t see themselves as leaders, they don’t fit that mold. It’s harder for some of our kids of color, especially elementary-age boys; even more of a girl thing to do.”
As for membership on the Student Voice Advisory Council, Hammond sounded a hopeful note. “I think we’ve made progress. Now we randomly select students to ensure a full representation of the school population, not just the top five kids from the school. We let the computer generate a list and we send the schools that list asking them to please choose from these kids. A lot of kids on the council now tell me, I never really saw myself as a leader until that day when we learned what a leader truly is.”
She wants to see every school in Washoe County School District have a diverse Student Advisory Council representative of their own school. By doing so, “these students would tackle school level issues with staff.”
“We’ve made great strides in that area too,” Hammond said. “We have a lot of schools right now that are establishing these councils. That’s part of the work I’m doing every day. We have a realistic goal. I believe we are only three years out from achieving that goal.”
Visiting with Student Voice participants
Sitting at the conference desk in the Wooster High School admin office, two Student Voice representatives updated what is happening with the program. Hundreds of students chatter away with each other as they head for a bite to eat or another class. The familiar cacophony hums through the admin office’s porous walls.
Victoria Gomez is a sophomore at Wooster High School. For her, Student Voice is the opportunity for her fellow students to talk about things going on throughout the school district. “Things that we can help change. It’s students making an impact on the district whether speaking to the Board of Trustees and those who work in the district.”
Gomez is gaining experience in the democratic process, administration, communication, and leadership development. She highlights how Student Voice has had an effect on more-inclusive types of instruction, how students go about learning, the design of schools and the overarching benefits of empowering direct student engagement.
“We look at the data, working in partnership with the Office of Accountability closely. We look at data on how students are doing in school while focusing on the different approaches, what things we should do next, to build trust between students and teachers, to get students more involved and to make sure that their education is good.”
“We share power,” according to Gomez. “We can see that the changes we help create actually do make an impact. We don’t just plan something out and then never get listened to. We actually see the difference. We are able to talk to the Board of Trustees, present a whole plan to them of something we want to be incorporated into the district’s policy initiatives and happens when we have everything planned out.”
An important issue for Gomez is addressing teacher-students relationships. “We want students more involved in creating strong relationships with their teachers because that would have a positive impact on a lot of students.”
She wanted students sitting on the Sexual Health and Responsibility Education Advisory Committee (S.H.A.R.E) to have a voice in a variety of committee’s recommendations.
When Gomez was in eighth-grade, she first heard about Student Voice and was invited to the yearly conference. She sat in on different breakout sessions to get a better feel for the program.
The following year, she attended the conference as a member of Student Voice. “I was one of the presenters at the breakout sessions and got the opportunity to be one of the speakers. I spoke in front of hundreds of students. Honestly, I really liked getting the opportunity.
“I might turn a little red, but I like public speaking a lot and being able to make an impact on the people. I know Student Voice made an impact on me knowing that students actually have a voice and can make a difference in their district. I’ve grown my skills a lot.”
The Advisory Council meets twice a month. At their meetings, they add new students in an effort to meet yearly recruiting goals. The Council also advises on curriculum and the further development of the Ethnic Studies program. She says that at each meeting they get to know each other a little better each time. Gomez is most proud of the Ethnic Studies Group, students learning more about different cultures, not just their own.
“We all have seen in our advisory council that some students grow up with knowing only the traditions from their families, religion, what they grow up learning about. If someone doesn’t see the different cultures, they are indifferent. Let’s say you are Hispanic, you don’t know what kind of religion or what kind of culture Filipinos have. It is a place where you can grow, see things differently. My goal in life is to work with kids with special needs. I want to be a speech pathologist.”
Nathan Noble is a senior at Wooster High School. He has been a part of Student Voice for four years.
Noble sees a direct connection between student involvement and the way schools are run. He describes the unsettling dismissal of the former superintendent and how the selection process of the new superintendent is ripe with anticipation. This process includes stakeholder interviews, one of the stakeholders being the student body.
“We would like to be consulted on that. And we’ve come up with some good ideas and criteria when we’d like our new superintendent to meet.”
In Noble’s view, Student Voice Council has two primary responsibilities. The first is to represent the student body by disseminating the Student Voice message to almost every single school in this district.
“We’re working on getting individual student councils set up. We have representatives from almost every single school.”
The second responsibility is to facilitate positive policy changes.
“We were consulted about the new SHARE curriculum that recently went into effect. While they were designing the course load, they addressed our opinions on what we believed was lacking in the previous curriculum. We were able to give useful feedback that was then translated into policy by the SHARE committee.”
Noble gives a bit of insight into his own history with Student Voice. When he started as a freshman he was a little bit nervous.
“I didn’t really think that the government was any of my business. I left that to better people. The fact that it was actually engaging and enjoyable, really emboldened me.”
Now Noble wants to go to college next year and study political science and eventually get into politics. He said a large part of these personal goals is a direct result of his work with Student Voice.
Noble is proud to be part of the Student Voice movement that is engaging marginalized local populations, diverse student perspectives and personalized learning strategies.
“We have a pretty diverse society here in the Washoe County School District in need of further cultural awareness, students and staff with different cultural views and values.”
He sees the Ethnic Studies program as a way to bridge the gap between a “given culture’s set of values and the other cultures’ values, such as the Native American community, the Hispanic community, the Filipino community. They all have different sets of traditions and values. The Ethnic Studies program is designed to help people have a better awareness of what other people’s values are to empathize with them and see their perspectives, communicate better and be part of a well-meshed society.”
The Student Voice program has created adult buy-in districtwide and empowered many of the school district’s students, not just a select few. Student Voice is now a full partner in the continued transformation of how the district educates its children. Other districts statewide are taking notice and many are beginning to follow suit.
The sixth annual “Strength in Voices Conference has been tentatively scheduled for the Fall of 2020. The last conference in March of 2019 hosted more than 400 students, staff and local residents.
This is part of a series of explanatory stories about public education in northern Nevada.
Joe McCarthy: I am NCN’s freelance education reporter. I have an MS in curriculum development from SUNY Albany. In the 70s, I directed a community college-sponsored inner-city adult learning center in New York and in the 80s developed the first-offender education program for Northern Nevada Correctional Center. My oldest daughter is an instructional coach for the WCSD. She serves several schools in the district.