April 24, 2017

Include Students in Search for JCPS Leader

By Pearl Morttey & Zachariah Sippy

The departure of Donna Hargens offers an opportunity to consider the role of Jefferson County Public Schools's superintendent in relation to the system's stakeholders.

The superintendent is the chief executive of the school district in charge of implementing the board’s vision and responsible for making day-to-day decisions about educational programs, spending, staff, salaries, and facilities.

In a district as large and diverse as Jefferson County, it is imperative that all stakeholders are heard in the process of selecting the person with so much influence over our public schools. Engaging the public in this way creates the buy-in necessary to ensure that everyone is invested in the superintendent’s success.

But full school stakeholder engagement requires that parents, teachers, administrators, community members, as well as students participate.

Without creating space for meaningful student voice, too much of school policy hinges on an incomplete picture of our schools.

Students spend 35 hours each week in the classroom. We are the first to observe the effects of decisions on grading systems, academic standards, the distribution of resources, and scheduling.

How might we tap into the expertise of students to help make the system better?

JCPS should actively solicit youth voices and create a formal space for students in the district to share relevant perspectives and articulate a vision for JCPS schools. Such a platform would better inform the superintendent candidates about the culture and climate of Jefferson County and encourage students to be more active participants in their own learning. Beyond that, the superintendent selection process can serve as a chance for Jefferson County to educate students about the democratic decision-making central to school governance by including them in it.

Despite existing legal barriers to formal participation on the superintendent screening committee, students can still play an essential role in the process. Recently Fayette County Public Schools, for example, invited a diverse group of students to interview the final two candidates in a closed-door session and then provide feedback to the Board.

Integrating students into the superintendent selection process is one step to engage students in meaningful school decision-making. And it should only be the beginning. Soliciting student voice should be a priority of the next superintendent.

For the last year, the Student Voice Team has traveled across the Commonwealth to hear from students directly about their school experiences. Our Students as Partners listening tour has led us from Appalachian coal country and other rural areas to Kentucky’s urban centers. What we have heard is that when it comes to their own learning, most students feel powerless, as if they cannot make a difference in the way they experience school.

The lack of a forum for students to share their perspectives leads to a sense of learned helplessness and apathy. But a school community that supports all students to learn at their highest potential also demands that it supports young people to be active, informed partners in their education.

The selection of a new superintendent allows JCPS to take a significant first step in opening the process of making our schools the best they can be to all stakeholders.  This is a prospect that can and should include us, the students.

This op-ed originally ran in the Courier Journal.

Pearl Morttey

Pearl Morttey

Pearl is a Yoda Corps Advisor of KSVT and former member. She graduated from Fern Creek High School in 2017 and Centre College in 2021.

Zachariah Sippy

Zachariah Sippy

Zachariah is a Yoda Corps Advisor of KSVT and former member. He was previously the Director of Grassroots Engagement. Zachariah graduated from Henry Clay High School in 2018 and is a student at Princeton University.