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Elevating student voice

Teens speak out about challenges, life

Kent ISD — When the pandemic started, Union High School senior Terrell Daniels, Jr. said he didn’t know what was going on. He lost his motivation during virtual school and asked “Why is this happening?”

Terrell Daniels, Jr., a senior from Union High School, was a panelist

“When I went to high school the first time, I started as a sophomore because my whole freshman year was snatched from me,” Terrell said. “I felt so lost. I thought a part of me is not myself because I thought I should have prepared myself and I wished that COVID didn’t happen to me.”

Four Kent County students shared their thoughts and feelings about the pandemic, mental health and belonging with about 300 educators and local and state leaders during Kent ISD’s inaugural “Listen. Learn. Lead: State of the Student” event at Grand Valley State University’s L.V. Eberhard Center.

Ron Gorman, Kent ISD assistant superintendent of instructional service,  said he has discussed these topics with students who have indicated they feel overwhelmed and that education is difficult post-Covid. Gorman facilitates a countywide group called the Student Leadership Community.

“Something that resonates with me is when scholars referenced that they were drowning,” Gorman said. “And many of the scholars who are on the Student Leadership Community, they are your valedictorians; they are your salutatorians…when your valedictorian and salutatorian – those who have always done wonderfully in school – say they are drowning, that’s something we need to pay attention to.”

Students and guests mingle before the Listen. Learn. Lead: State of the Student program

Starting the Conversation

The program featured two panels, one with students from the Student Leadership Community, which includes about 40 students who represent Kent County districts. The panel included Comstock Park junior Kaymin Behrens, East Grand Rapids junior Max Fechtner, Northview senior Anna Malaker and Terrell. It was moderated by Maranda from WOODTV and ABC4 West Michigan. 

The second panel included Kent County superintendents Heidi Kattula of East Grand Rapids, Dedrick Martin of Caledonia, Leadriane Roby of Grand Rapids and Scott Smith of Cedar Springs. It was moderated by Kentwood Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston. 

Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler said State of the Student was designed to start the conversation on challenges districts are facing in educating students.

“These kids aren’t widgets and it is not a transactional relationship we have with them,” Koehler said. “(It’s not) ‘Here’s the curriculum: learn it. We put it in front of them, they didn’t learn it. Oh well.’ It’s a relationship business. We have to establish relationships, we have to work very hard….We need to understand what every student’s goals and needs are and try to work with them to help them fulfill them.”

The presentation included videos of other Student Leadership Community members discussing challenges they have faced.

Godwin junior Christonna McCoy listens to the presentation

The COVID Impact

Anna: “Before COVID I was very self-motivated. I know that I would get an A- and I would get very mad at myself. Then once you transition into this COVID-at-home-learning style, I really lost all sense of self motivation and my work ethic has changed so much.

“I felt like (in) going back to school, all my teachers still hold me up to that standard and expect me to have that same work ethic, which I appreciate, but also, at the same time, it is a little tough to stay at that standard and to continue to do that.”

Max Fechtner from East Grand Rapids High School was a panelist

Mental Health

Max: “(The teachers) check in with you more as a person. So last year, my English teacher reached out and said if you wanted to come in at lunch or after school and tell me what’s up, we can work through this. I feel like it is more of a personal connection than ‘Hey, let’s make sure your grades are OK.’ That really pulls you through and makes sure you are doing the best you can.”

Sense of Belonging

Kaymin: “Personally, I feel like I belong because I am so involved. I have a sense of belonging, but for the students who are not necessarily as involved, I don’t know if it is safe to say there is that sense. 

“Our school involvement is positive for the kids who are involved but there are a lot of negative things going around too. There is a lot of racism and homophobia. Our school, I feel like is working toward making that more positive, but I don’t know how effective it’s been yet.”


Terrell said it is important people understand what students are thinking and seeing. Younger generations will “change society in ways that we can’t comprehend.” Finding the best solution requires understanding what challenges a student faces.

Afterwards, Terrell said State of the Student could be a catalyst for change in creating more welcoming places and to make everyone feel like they matter.

Max said he liked working together to make a difference. “I do feel like I have been heard. It was really good to have all the people up on stage. We were sort of building off each other and I feel like we really did get out what it’s like to be a kid to all these adults.”

Kentwood Superintendent Kevin Polston (far left) leads the superintendent panel

Superintendents Weigh In

Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Leadriane Roby said data on how students become less engaged as they get older is a concern. “What do we do as a system that kids are so excited in kindergarten and by the time they get to high school, they are like ‘Yeah, whatever’?”

East Grand Rapids Superintendent Heidi Kattula said despite the many great things schools are doing to support mental health the pandemic has changed things. “COVID has certainly – with the social isolation – added a whole other component that students must work through (on) the trip through life.”

Caledonia Superintendent Dedrick Martin said all students should feel comfortable at school. “We are recognizing coming out of COVID that that sense of safety, that sense of belonging, and that sense of care and support is vital to kids and everyone.”

Cedar Springs Superintendent Scott Smith said academic recovery doesn’t have a one-size-fits all formula. “One solution will not meet the needs of each one of our students and therefore that equity lens is critical for us to view each situation, each moment to best support the needs of each one of our students.”

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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