Educators love to espouse the virtues of strong student voices.
But few have successfully developed systems that make it possible to actively listen to and learn from every student.
As competition for students heats up, school district leaders are learning that actively engaging students in ongoing, two-way conversations is foundational to building trust with parents and families and to keeping students engaged and excited about what they are doing in school.
That’s the thinking in Wyoming’s Albany County School District #1. In a recent webinar, Superintendent Dr. Jubal Yennie outlined how his district uses student voice to inform strategic decision-making, both inside the classroom and out.
Giving students purpose
Dr. Yennie says a strong sense of student voice leads to stronger engagement in school, a greater sense of self-worth among students, and a broader sense of purpose.
Whether through the use of school surveys, focus groups, or personal one-on-one conversations, ACSD #1 empowers students to contribute to district decision-making, and, where possible, to their own learning.
The efforts are paying off.
Yennie says students have provided valuable feedback on several outstanding policy considerations, including a proposal for revised graduation requirements that the team will consider next year:
“One of the things we’ll be working on this year is the whole graduation requirement…We’re finding that students have a great deal to say in this conversation. One of the things that’s resonated really well at the high school is this whole notion of purpose, where they’re actually saying the choices they’re provided in their programs is driving their desire to learn.”
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Signs of trust
One of Yennie’s priorities when he became superintendent at ACSD #1 was to build a stronger sense of trust, not only with students, but with parents and staff. To do that, the district launched a comprehensive school quality survey, asking students, parents, and staff members to assess the district in several critical dimensions, including academic support, school leadership, and safety and behavior.
When they collectively pored over the data, Yennie and his team were surprised to discover that participating students gave higher marks for student support services and safety and behavior than did many parents. Overall, though, the results were encouraging.
“We picked up very early on that our community and our students and staff all felt that we were doing a good job,” Yennie says. “We certainly celebrated that. I think the metric we picked up out of that was 9 out of 10 people said we were doing excellent or good.”
More work to be done
Despite largely positive feedback from parents, students, and staff, Yennie says community engagement represents a continuous cycle of improvement for the district.
Among the areas where students thought schools could improve: drawing clearer connections between classroom lessons and real-world experiences.
Yennie says this kind of candid student feedback drives many of the conversations he and his staff have about better-serving students:
“I think there’s some opportunity here with the curriculum–with how we’re structuring teaching and learning in Albany County. From the survey instrument, we’ve spent a great deal of time over the past year developing a strategic plan that echoes a lot of these concerns that we’re seeing here.”
While still a work in progress, ACSD #1 is taking strides to include more student voices in its decisions. A new strategic plan on the district website illustrates those efforts and offers several “mile markers” intended to gauge the district’s progress over time.
To hear more from Dr. Yennie on ACSD #1’s approach to student engagement, watch the webinar here.
What steps is your school or district taking to prioritize student engagement this year? How do you listen to students? Tell us in the comments.