As local school districts seek to produce better outcomes for students, at least one district is thinking about students not merely as those on the receiving end of reform, but as allies in bringing it about.
The Memphis schools face huge challenges. In 2012, the state of Tennessee identified the lowest performing five percent of schools statewide -- and 69 of the 83 schools were in Memphis. Last November, with ambitious school reform efforts underway, a group of student activists won their long fight for a bigger student voice in the operation of the school system when the board of education approved a plan for a district-wide Student Congress.
The seeds were planted three years ago as the city and county school systems for Memphis and surrounding Shelby County were planning their merger, creating the biggest school district in Tennessee. "I've been at this for two years" said Paris Byrd, a senior at Central High School, one of the students who have been a part of Bridge Builders, a program of the Memphis nonprofit BRIDGES, to bring the Student Congress idea to reality. "It passed because of the work we've done -- and because thousands of students have been involved in this. We've all seen the passion and the need for a voice in our city."
Every public high school and middle school will be represented in the Student Congress, which will meet with the entire school board once or twice a semester and with the Superintendent at least once a semester. The Student Congress will also select members to serve as ambassadors to the board, presenting their proposals during the public comment section of the regular board meetings.
The Memphis students I talked with about the Student Congress are proud not only of the Board's adoption of the idea, but about the step-by-step, student-led campaign that got them there. To figure out how to better incorporate student voice into the new, combined school district, the Bridge Builders CHANGE students convened focus groups, conducted a student survey (which drew over 1,000 responses), and consulted with experts in student engagement. "Our school system is huge," says Corrinne McClure, a senior at White Station High School. "Even though we're affected every day by the decisions of the school board, the survey showed that the majority of students feel they are not being given a voice."
Over the next two years, the student leaders developed and refined the Student Congress proposal, with help from the Transition Planning Commission (the team planning the creation of the unified school district), the Shelby County Schools Policy Department staff, and other students. There were plenty of challenges along the way. "The original proposal was for students to sit on the board as non-voting members," explained Christine Lee, a senior at Germantown High School. "But youth are not always taken seriously. A lot of adults prefer just to work with other adults." Says Bryan Redmond, a senior at City University School of the Arts, "We wanted youth to be directly connected with the board members, rather than just to a teacher or a principal." Eventually, through compromise by students and board members alike, a Student Congress proposal was crafted that was embraced by the board.
"I got emotional when it passed the board vote," says Paris Byrd. "We'd worked on it for so long. There were people who had worked on this and gone off to college, and some of them sent their parents to the board meeting." But however sweet the victory, the students I talked to clearly didn't see the board vote as the end of the story. They have their eyes on implementation -- for example, about the need to train students so they could be prepared to serve effectively on the new Student Congress.
While the immediate goal is to bring student voice to bear on efforts to improve the schools, Corrinne McClure sees a longer term benefit for Memphis. "This can help develop community. We're aiming to draw students into the greatness of the city by helping them to feel connected."
Meanwhile, the students from the Bridge Builders CHANGE program haven't stopped at Memphis. Next week, they are presenting their story of student-led change to educators and youth from around the nation at the 25th annual National Service Learning Conference -- because they believe that school reform won't work unless students themselves are part of it.
Willa Seldon is a partner with The Bridgespan Group and co-author of From Input to Ownership: How Nonprofits Can Engage with the People They Serve to Carry Out Their Missions
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