October 1, 2017

Student Voice in Kentucky

Hiatt Allen and Zachariah Sippy

It started small and simple.


On a cool fall evening in 2012, a group of high school students meet in Central Kentucky, brought together by a paper flyer and a passion for education, met with a woman with a pitch from a local education organization in a coffee shop.


At the time, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, Kentucky's premier independent citizens' education advocacy organization was exploring ways to include students in its work to improve Kentucky education. Back then, we students didn’t know much about education policymaking or even the Prichard Committee. But we were drawn by the idea that students must have a role to play in the work to make our schools better. After years of spending thirty-five hours in the classroom each week, we felt we had some ideas to share about what was and wasn’t working in our schools.


For the first time, we had the opportunity to question and explore the system in which we had passively participated for so long. Almost immediately, and just by word of mouth, our tiny group of four expanded to thirteen. Throughout that think-tank year, we kept asking ourselves and others: How could we prove that student voice matters?


We started by attending Prichard Committee (our parent organization dedicated to citizen advocacy around the education system) meetings and study group sessions, and, after observing the Prichard Committee in action (i.e. their board and planning meetings and study group sessions researching a range of education issues,) we began to take more initiative. We joined their We Can’t Wait campaign, partnering with other advocates, and started speaking at local rallies about our first-hand experiences with problems caused by inadequate education funding. We wrote op-eds about under-resourced schools and academic standards that were published in the state’s largest papers. We presented at policy conferences and joined Prichard Committee staff in testifying before the state legislature on the role of student feedback in bolstering teacher effectiveness.


Even while we were lobbying the legislature, we were doing quieter work, far out of the spotlight. That year, as many of us were heading to college, we began to investigate the postsecondary transition process. In particular, we wanted to know why the jump from high school to college, trade school, or the workforce was so difficult for so many of our peers. To answer this question, we turned to policy experts, fellow students, studies and statistics, and—of course—our own experiences.


That project, which we have since dubbed “College Tripwires,” and our experience campaigning for increased student involvement in school governance, particularly student representation on superintendent screening committees, led us to realize that in order to really integrate students in education policy, research, and advocacy, we had to amplify voices of students well beyond our own. And there has been no looking back. Ever since, we’ve been visiting schools between our own classes and after school in all pockets of Kentucky, soliciting the stories from Kentucky’s hardest-to-reach students to ensure that they do not go unheard.


A natural outgrowth of this renewed commitment to listening to students has been the Student Voice Audit. We pioneered a methodology for leveraging student feedback to inform school improvement efforts and, more broadly, schools’ learning environments.


We’ve also expanded our work to include students in school governance. We conducted original research on the status of meaningful student representation in school decision-making, the results of which we published in our “Students as Partners” policy report and are currently conducting workshops around the state in order to help schools figure out how to better integrate student voice in the way schools are run.


And we’ve expanded our college tripwires research; we will soon publish our first book, Ready or Not (coming soon) which contains original data on college readiness, as well as stories from kids across the state—the students behind the statistics and are preparing a report that includes recommendations like: 

  • Reconsider our overreliance on ACT standardized tests as benchmarks for college readiness;

  • Invest more in college counseling for the far too many students who don't have reliable guidance at home;

  • Balance attention on academic support with mental health support—too many students from every socio-economic and academic background are suffering.


Moved by the power of these first-hand accounts, we began to explore how we could best share them with the rest of the world. So we created the Student Voice Forum, a student-run blog which aims to enrich education policy discussions by pairing student stories with statistics.


And even as we’ve mostly moved to more grassroots work, we have remained on the lookout for opportunities to work with policymakers at the grasstops.


In 2016, that approach was embodied by the Powerball Promise campaign. We formed a coalition to urge the legislature to restore lottery-funded, need-based scholarships. Its success hinged on our ability to work with other advocates and lift up the voices of students who were struggling to make the next step after high school. The subsequent restoration of 14 million dollars to need-based college scholarships means that thousands of students are now able to receive extra financial support for continuing their education after high school.


Five years of working to transform Kentucky education has translated into five years of showing Kentucky, the country, and ourselves what is possible when we leverage untapped student voice in school improvement efforts. We retain many of our students who graduate college and remain self-selective and open for membership to any student who contacts us with interest.


And though we could never have expected what would unfold after that simple meeting in that coffee shop, five years in, we now have clear proof that when it comes to ensuring our education system is the best it can be, student voice matters. 

The Kentucky Student Voice Team is an independent, youth-led, statewide organization that supports students as research, policy, and advocacy partners to ensure Kentucky’s education system is as equitable, just, and as excellent as it can be. Until 2021, it was part of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent, nonpartisan, citizen-led organization working to improve education in Kentucky—early childhood through postsecondary.

Hiatt Allen is the Student Voice Team’s Student Strategy Director and Zachariah Sippy is the Student Director of Grassroots Initiatives for the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team. This article was originally published in Connect, a practice journal published by the Australian Council for Educational Research that covers student voice, agency, and participation (Issue 227).

Hiatt Allen is the Student Voice Team’s Student Strategy Director and Zachariah Sippy is the Student Director of Grassroots Initiatives for the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team. This article was originally published in Connect, a practice journal published by the Australian Council for Educational Research that covers student voice, agency, and participation (Issue 227).