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Student voice sought by area superintendents

Survey of all Kent ISD schools will gauge student concerns

Kent County — A student well-being survey was recently given a field test with more than 6,000 students in Kent County, giving researchers plenty to digest before a full-survey rollout in the 2021-22 school year to all 20 public school districts in Kent ISD.

The KISA (Kent Intermediate Superintendents Association) survey is designed to gather student voice in three areas: social-emotional learning; student engagement; and diversity, equity & inclusion.

Coming out of the pandemic, superintendents are convinced that the social and emotional needs of their students, and their levels of engagement in learning, are more important than ever to student success, explained Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler.

It’s also crucial that district leaders hear what students are thinking in order to better serve them, he and others say.

“We believe student voice is vital to successful decision-making, but as a system, we had a gap in this area,” said Kentwood Superintendent Kevin Polston. “To achieve equitable outcomes for all students, school leaders wanted to better understand the student experience.

“Resource allocation, professional development and goal development are all examples of ways the data can be used to improve the student experience and student outcomes in our schools,” he added.

In a recent presentation for community partners, East Grand Rapids Superintendent Heidi Kattula noted “We also will use this feedback to inform the work that we do as educators and administrators, as our students are our number one priority, and their voice is critical,” she said. 

“We can’t do what we do, and meet their needs, if we aren’t collecting their feedback and using their voice.”

Kattula, Polston and Sunil Joy, Kent ISD data scientist, formed the leadership team for the survey project, an outgrowth of conversations at a 2019 KISA retreat. Other area superintendents, plus members of KISA’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion subcommittee, have all been working on it.

Opportunity to ‘Hear from the Kids Directly’

After the presentation to community partners, participants pondered a number of questions related to the survey and expressed unanimous appreciation for the work done and the possibilities that lie ahead.

Grand Rapids Public Schools board member Tony Baker noted that middle- and high-school students often do not feel listened to which causes them to disengage.

“They feel like they don’t have a voice,” he said, adding that the upcoming survey will be something that schools will be able to use well because of its focus on listening to students.

Judge Kathleen Feeney, active in the Kent County School-Justice Partnership, a group that works to reduce chronic absenteeism in schools, agreed.

“We’re constantly trying to figure out what’s happening,” Feeney said. “But this might be our first opportunity to hear from the kids directly. I’m really hoping this is going to inform our approach to keeping kids in school. I’m really excited.”

Acting on the Voice of Students

Concerns for student engagement and impediments students face go back a decade to the adoption of the Michigan Merit curriculum, according to Koehler. 

“That was the genesis of the original student engagement work we did.” This work led to concrete changes, such as the emphasis on real-world project learning, that many districts have since adopted, he said.

Kent ISD’s Joy explained the field test survey was taken online, at school, by just over 6,000 students. The districts were a mix of urban, suburban and rural, with students demographically similar to Kent ISD as a whole. Participation was voluntary.

The field test had some 50 questions: all multiple choice and one open-ended response, although the final survey will likely be shorter when given for students in grades 5, 7, 9 and 11. 

Under the Social and Emotional Learning heading were such questions as “How easy is it for you to pull yourself out of a bad mood?”

Joy said the inclusion of social-emotional learning in the survey is important because “these are the characteristics and values we know are predictors of success later in life in general, and we have to measure what matters.”

Student Engagement saw questions such as “How often do your teachers take time to make sure you understand the material?”

Joy said that lots of prior research shows engagement tends to be the highest in the early grades and drops as students get older. That’s why the survey will begin with grade 5, a critical age when it comes to engagement.

In the section for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, there are a variety of topics, including comfort levels around reporting discrimination at their school. He said this focus is critical, with the U.S. census showing the majority of children under the age of 15 are students of color.

Open-ended Comments Focus on Stress, LGBTQ+ Issues

And while the survey is still in development, with no actual results to report, he said the responses to the open-ended question in the field test provided valuable insights into student concerns.

Joy said two common themes were frequently brought up: the stress many students are feeling and the need for schools to be welcoming for LGBTQ+ students.

To refine and prepare the survey for rollout next year, researchers plan to hold focus groups and meet with students to walk through the entire survey, Joy explained, asking questions to make sure students understood the wording, and get feedback. 

A grant from the U.S. Department of Education will pay for some of those activities and survey work.

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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