August 10, 2017

How Student Voice Strengthens Our Advocacy

By Rachel Belin

Fifty published op-eds; three policy reports; 65 presentations to educators, policymakers, students, and advocates; and one soon-to-be published book—advocates in Kentucky have been busy, all between bells. The  Student Voice Team is celebrating five years of listening and advocacy this August.

For years, while mobilizing parents and civic business leaders to push for better Kentucky schools, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence had considered the idea of including students in its work.

But it took young people themselves, in sync with adult leadership, to make the concept a reality.

During the 2012-13 school year, 14 Central Kentucky students worked to gather research, observe policy-makers in action, reach out to other youth across the state, and confer with allies across the country, to deliver an unprecedented presentation at the Committee’s spring meeting.

The teens laid out their argument for student integration. “In school, we learn about democracy,” one 16-year-old said. “Why don’t we work with the Prichard Committee and do democracy?”

That presentation was a significant moment in the organization’s 30-year history and one that led to a floor vote to incorporate the Student Voice Team as a component of the broader organization. The results of that decision have been profound.

Having powerful young messengers not only makes the issues we care about more accessible, but the Student Voice Team serves as a strategy for turning outward.

The team’s outreach to their peers provides a way to balance our expert knowledge with insight that can only be gained through the lived experience of our schools’ primary stakeholders.

Integrating students into our advocacy dovetails nicely with a core value of preparing young people to be productive, self-realized citizens.

In the last five years, with a single dedicated staff member, the team has grown to include approximately 100 self-selected students from middle school through college, in turn reaching thousands of Kentucky students from diverse ethnic, socio-economic, and geographic backgrounds in the process.  The group has organized students around issues related to college affordability, school climate, academic standards, student representation in school governance, and other issues consistent with Prichard Committee priorities.

Prichard Committee staff and members have embraced this initiative as the Student Voice Team continues to test what is possible. Beyond installing the first high school student as a member in the organization’s history, the Committee is incubating a larger, statewide team of young people as both informed advocates and independent critics of Kentucky’s education system. And that is no accident.  Prichard Committee senior staff regularly make time to engage the SVT’s leadership in high-level strategy sessions.

Perhaps the clearest signal that students are fully integrated as education research, policy, and advocacy partners.

Four Tips to Engage Students in Advocacy Work

Given the value proposition of engaging students in education advocacy, how might PIE Network members do this too? Here are a few ways to get going:

Start Small: Begin with a handful of deeply committed student partners who appreciate their role to help you solicit the voices and perspectives of other students, mainly those who are least heard in the system.  Invite them to help you design and develop a small project that can show early success in enhancing your work. Consider building on the work of an existing youth development program to identify and recruit this initial core. 

Start Economically: Figure out what you can do with a shoestring/dental floss/nonexistent budget, taking heart in the fact that the Student Voice Team conducts the bulk of its work with low to no-cost technology such as videoconferencing, (we like Zoom), group texting (Slack), and collaborative writing (Google Drive).

Make Students Partners: Assess your existing engagement spaces and invite students into them.  Help normalize student presence in professional development trainings, board meetings, strategic planning sessions, etc.

Don’t Recreate the Wheel: Feel free to use the Student Voice Team model, as well as other models across the Network, as a case study for why student voice is important, and how to make it work!

Students can bring much added value to school improvement efforts, which is why we want to do whatever we can to share our strategies and techniques with PIE Network members. It would be a shame for the Student Voice Team—or Kentucky for that matter—to keep the secret of student voice to ourselves.

This article was originally published by the PIE Network.

Rachel Belin

Rachel Belin

Rachel is the Managing Partner and a co-founder of the Kentucky Student Voice Team.