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Students focus on equity in letters to Board of Ed

‘It’s very important for us to hear directly from our students’

Wyoming — Adryanna Smith knows there is a lot more to Black history than Martin Luther King Jr., but she learned that at home. 

“My family always made it a point to learn about who I am and where my history comes from,” she said. “(At school), we always learned about the Revolutionary War and that kind of thing… then, in each grade (classes) go more into depth with it instead of going more in depth with other things.”

The Wyoming Junior High School eighth-grader recently put her thoughts into letter form and sent them to the Board of Education, expressing how education could be more equal and fair by offering more Black and Hispanic history.

“I feel like it really needs to be done within our school, because our school is very diverse,” Adryanna said.

Her work was part of The Equity Project in English teachers Katie Sluiter and Ashley Bakker’s classrooms, which called for students to think about what they want to see improved or changed in school and write letters to the board.

‘Your words matter… Some people use them for hurt, but we can use them for good and for change, too.’

— teacher Katie Sluiter

Amplifying Voices

The Equity Project is a new twist on an argumentative writing unit Sluiter leads during the third quarter of the school year. Normally, she assigns a topic, but this year, she knew students had a lot on their minds. They had just returned from several weeks of learning virtually due to the pandemic and had read Long Way Down, a novel by Jason Reynolds, which centers on the cycle of violence in urban areas. 

She wanted to amplify their voices beyond a class paper, and told them, “This year has been weird, and I feel you all have something you want to talk about.”

Conversations began on equity and inclusion, and students “got really on fire,” she said. Sluiter contacted Director of Teaching and Learning Jennifer Slanger and asked if the board and administrators would be interested in student opinions on how to make the school more equitable. Slanger said “absolutely,” she recalled.

‘I don’t want kids to experience the same type of pain that I felt.’

— Jeremiah Pearson

The assignment was finalized. “Pick something about our school that either needs to be improved or changed completely and make the argument, give them evidence, explain the evidence and tell them why,” Sluiter directed the class. Bakker’s class did the same.

“We generated ideas. ‘What does our school do really well? What kinds of things do you think need work?’” Sluiter said. 

“Oh, boy. As many things as they can think of that we do well — they love this school, they feel included — they had tons of ideas about what could change.”

Sluiter printed the letters and delivered them to Slanger. “They all turned out really well. You could hear what was important to every student,” Sluiter said.

Slanger presented them to the board on May 10. She said she saw “great value in passing them along to our board members for many reasons.”

‘A lot of people have different beliefs, but we all should learn to be respectful to one another.’

— Vanessa Gonzalez-Rodriguez

“This was a cuminuating learning experience that highlighted what our students are passionate about. It showcased our students’ hard work, determination, and desire to make a positive difference in their school and lives of others,” she said. “Additionally, it gives our students a voice to share what is on their mind and what is important to them at this point in time. Finally, it shows how Mrs. Sluiter is educating students how to advocate outside of just the classroom setting.”

Board President Lisa Manley said she was responding to the letters via email. 

“I absolutely love the ideas they have to celebrate our diversity, from wanting to try different ethnic foods, to speakers from different countries. They have the thirst to learn more about their classmates, or want their classmates to know more about them. How exciting.”

Manley discussed with Superintendent Craig Hoekestra “how important it is that these kids feel heard,” she said, and next steps to take.

“As adults, sometimes we fall into ‘we are the teachers,’ when in fact if we listen and watch, our kids have a lot to teach us as well,” Manley said.

Esmeralda Jimenez wants to learn about different cultures in school

Equity in Many Forms

Not every idea was centered on race or ethnicity. Jeramiah Pearson said he wants measures to be taken to better prevent bullying with a strong anti-bullying program. “It fits into equity because people want to be treated fairly, like they are a part of (school). If there is bullying happening they will feel useless and not a part of anything.” 

He said he faced bullying in sixth grade, which affected him deeply. “I want to speak out now so that people can be helped in the future — all the younger generations of kids. I don’t want kids to experience the same type of pain that I felt.”

Vanessa Gonzalez-Rodriguez wrote about adding classes on different cultures. “I hope the outcome is more people learn about Hispanics, Asians and Blacks and other people of color. A lot of people have different beliefs, but we all should learn to be respectful to one another.”

Similarly, Esmeralda Jimenez wrote that she wants to learn about people and cultures all over the globe. “I would not only want to learn about my culture, but others as well, because I’m curious.”

Sluiter said she hopes her students learn that their ideas are valued. “Your words matter. That’s been something I’ve been trying to help them understand since Day One. Some people use them for hurt but we can use them for good and for change, too.”

Representation is critical, Sluiter said: “In our district we have so many kids with diverse backgrounds, ethnicities and religions and all these things, but we are mainly a white staff and administration. It’s very important for us to hear directly from our students.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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