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Leadership group brings students together to make connections and share their views

Includes 45 students from public, charter and home schools  

Student Leadership Community students shared their thoughts about being part of the group. (courtesy)

Kent ISD — Comstock Park sophomore Ryleigh O’Connor admitted she was not ready for high school. Having experienced the COVID pandemic in middle school, Ryleigh said she felt like she was just “thrown into it.”

It is that perspective Ryleigh felt that she brought to the Kent ISD Student Leadership Community.

“I feel like we’re helping adults to realize how kids really feel and that we’re not just lazy or that we just don’t care, but we have had personal experiences that they don’t understand, because it’s different from when they were kids,” she said about being part of the Student Leadership Community.

Ryleigh and the rest of the Student Leadership Community along with facilitators and Kent ISD staff came together for a year-end celebration at Licari’s Pizza Kitchen at the end of April. As part of the celebration, students all received a book about possibilities, “What Do You Do With a Chance?” by Kobi Yamada, and signed their copies for each other.  

From a Survey to Reality

Started two years ago, the Student Leadership Community brings together 45 students who represent a cross section of Kent County students in public, charter and home-school programs.

It was the Kent ISD’s My Student Survey that served as the force in creating the SLC, said Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent Ron Gorman, who serves as the group’s facilitator. In the survey, students reported that one of the areas educators needed to improve upon was student belonging and including student voices, Gorman said. 

“I think far too often adults speak for students, and this gives students the opportunity to tell their story,” Gorman said. “What we’re hearing from students is incredibly genuine, incredibly authentic. They keep it real with us and we truly appreciate that. And then the guidance they provided superintendents and community members about the high school students’ experience nowadays, what they’re excited about and what some of their anxieties are, I believe that’s really resonating with school leaders.”

‘Being able to provide a student voice and help build a better education experience is what the group is about.’

— Comstock Park senior Kaymin Behrens

Students have shared their thoughts with School News Network on a number of topics, such as student life, mental health, pressures and expectations, the impact of social media and school safety, as well as what they enjoy about school. The group also has been the focus of the Listen. Learn. Lead. State of the Student event in the fall, where they share their education experiences with school and community leaders. 

Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler said it has been rewarding to see students utilizing this opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings with educational and community leaders, who paid attention to what the students are discussing. 

“You don’t always know exactly what kind of difference it makes, but when you see a group like this, and we have put them in front of decision-makers, and you see the attention (the decision-makers) paid to them in the way that they respond,” Koehler said, “it’s clear that this is the right thing to do to help us better understand the students’ needs and what can make their experience more rewarding and relevant.” 

Learning From Each Other, Educating Administrators

Comstock Park senior Kaymin Behrens said being part of the SLC has been an eye-opening experience in that districts face a variety of problems that take work to solve.

“I think the biggest takeaway from this group for me is that there are differences in the problems that we face, but there’s also a lot of commonalities within them,” Kaymin said. “We’re all kind of going through the same thing and we’re not as alone as we think we are.”

Rockford senior Camille Dahlke said she felt comfortable to freely voice her opinion and appreciated the effort to include everyone in the conversation. Camille said she does believe the SLC has helped to elevate awareness of different topics, while giving students the opportunity to bring back to their own districts what other districts were doing to address those topics.

Sparta junior Erin Alster said one of the topics the group discussed was on career exploration and how to better prepare students for life after high school.  

“We were suggesting other things that they could do instead, such as having more college fairs … but make it so that when (college and career representatives) come, they talk to everyone, so everyone has an opportunity to find out what they want to do,” Erin said.

Acknowledging that the SLC has not been around long, Erin said she has not seen much change within her school district as a result of the organization. But she does feel that she and other students have been heard and that change will be coming to help future students.

Kaymin said she believes that the greatest impact has been from the students coming together and sharing their views, along with connecting with each other and administrators.

“It is not often that students have the opportunity to sit down with area educators and community leaders to share their voice about the issues impacting them as they move through the K-12 school system,” she said. “Being able to provide a student voice and help build a better education experience is what the group is about.”

Read more from Kent ISD: 
‘You can do anything and everything’
Finding focus and a fresh start through auto mechanics

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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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