The Change Agents

District Seeks Student Voices to Improve School

Northern High seniors from left, Mackenzie Almassian, Sam Scharich, Evan Lehmann and Erin Overholt hope the work they are doing now will have a positive impact on future students

If you didn’t have to go back to school tomorrow — or ever — would you?

When Evan Lehmann first heard the question, “I was in between” answering yes or no, he recalled. “There are classes I really enjoy, like sign language and band,” said the Northern High senior. “But math … if I didn’t have to come, I wouldn’t.”

Classmate Sam Scharich gets that. “What it comes down to is how effective school is. If I’m learning and I’m engaged, it’s good.”

Sam, Evan, and more than 20 other seniors in teacher Tiffany Morrison’s second-hour Reading, Writing & Leadership class want to know what everyone else in their school thinks — so much that they are dedicating part of the class to not only seeking student input, but to work for changes in how their school does school.

Since September, Chief Innovation Officer Judy Walton has been working with the classroom of seniors once or twice a week to develop and carry out a plan to improve certain aspects of school culture.

“I think they’re asked their opinions a lot, but it sort of stops there,” Walton said. “Now, they are the change agents.”

Chief Innovation Officer Judy Walton is helping seniors develop a plan to improve school culture
Chief Innovation Officer Judy Walton is helping seniors develop a plan to improve school culture

Data Gather, Data Dive

The group started by creating a survey based on certain topics such as teaching and learning, technology, student well-being and class scheduling logistics.

Mackenzie Almassian is particularly interested in knowing how many students feel that scheduling problems mean they end up taking “filler” classes they are not engaged in.

Evan wants to know if there’s a better way to grade students who work in groups for both their input and their output. “I wait tables in the summers, so I know the importance of teamwork,” Evan said.

And Erin Overholt wonders — as she does every time she studies for hours for an AP calculus test and doesn’t ace it — whether grades should be based solely on test scores, or should include, say, effort. “That’s a huge thing,” she said.

The anonymous survey recently went out to the entire 1,100 student body. In the coming weeks the seniors will tabulate the results, then develop a plan by early next year for acting on what they learn. And finally, if all goes according to schedule, put some of those plans into motion before the school year is out.

“In many districts, the school improvement process is a small subset of teachers who work with principals, and we’re always doing things to or for students but rarely with students,” Walton said. “The vision is to really get all stakeholders actively involved. This is a way to elevate student voice, to tell them, ‘You have a place at the table.’ ”

Goal: Better for Students & Teachers

Walton said other countries such as Canada, Great Britain and Australia — the last of which she visited over the summer to gather input — are leaders in seeking and using student voice.

“Before this class, I didn’t know (student voice) was a thing,” said Mackenzie, a senior. “I just thought, I go to class and these are the rules, and the teacher is the boss, and the administrators are their bosses. Now I’m like, ‘Yeah, we should be more involved in our education.’ ”

Sam agreed. “I think this is an important class,” he said. “It does two things: brings about awareness in students that there are things they can do, and provides an avenue, when we get the (survey) results, to hopefully make some changes.

“Obviously we have a voice in school, but how much power is behind that voice, I guess we’ll find out.”

Sam was quick to emphasize the group is “not trying to discredit teachers or say the school system doesn’t work. We’re just trying to make it a better experience for students and for teachers.”

CONNECT

Essay: Student Voice is an Integral Component of School Reform

Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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