February 8, 2015
Student Voice Team "Does Democracy"
By Rachel Belin and Andrew Brennen
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.
When 14 Central Kentucky students worked for the better part of the 2012-13 school year to gather research, observe policy-makers in action, reach out to other youth across the state and confer with allies across the country, the result was a compelling presentation at the committee’s spring meeting.
The teens laid out their argument for student integration. “In school, we learn about democracy,” said Ross Boggess, then a sophomore at Henry Clay High School in Lexington. “Why don’t we work with the Prichard Committee and do democracy?”
It was a significant moment in the organization’s 30-year history and led to the vote to inaugurate the Student Voice Team as a component of the broader organization. The embrace of students as policy partners speaks to the value of engaging young people in substantive efforts to improve our schools. And the benefits are mutual.
There is mounting evidence that the most successful students are those who feel some level of ownership in their education, and there is also a growing understanding that any school looking to improve achievement is well served by soliciting feedback from its students.
Just 2 years in, members of the Student Voice Team, working around their schedules as full-time middle, high school and college students, have, among other activities:
Facilitated a series of roundtable discussions with peers from Whitesburg to Bowling Green about a variety of education issues
Led a social media campaign that engaged students and the broader community on the importance of restoring school funding to pre-recessionary levels
Introduced legislation to change the law that excludes students from serving on the superintendent screening committee
Launched a deep investigation into the hidden tripwires that prevent students from making smooth transitions to college.
They may be too young to vote, but clearly, these students are not too young to make a significant contribution to public discourse.
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 its policy work.
In elevating student voices and bringing them to the education policy table, the Student Voice Team hopes to bridge the gap between policy and practice.
“For us, these issues aren’t about who’s going to be in the governor’s office next year,” said Ashton Bishop, an eighth-grader at Green County Middle School in Greensburg who spent the last year with the group researching policy challenges related to postsecondary transitions, “but whether or not we’ll be prepared for work and the world in 15.”
Adults caught off guard by the extent to which students have entered this space might heed the words of people like DuPont Manual High School senior Claire Gothard, one of several active members who participate in the team’s regular discussions by videoconference: “Students can be more than education consumers,” the 17-year-old from Louisville said, “we want to be creators too.”
At the heart of this initiative is the belief that education is a civil right, and in order to fully realize the dynamic democracy we deserve, we ultimately must support students to apply their civic education beyond the classroom walls.
As Bryan Station High School senior Desmond Howard, who is helping the team prepare to testify before the House Education Committee next week, put it: “Our interest in improving our schools is a reminder that a good education is about more than college and career. It’s about community too.”
The Kentucky Student Voice Team is a statewide organization of young people who are co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools & communities as research, policy & advocacy partners.
It was founded in 2012 at the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent, nonpartisan, citizen-led organization working to improve education in Kentucky—early childhood through postsecondary. Since 2021, KSVT has been an independent organization.
This op-ed originally ran in the Courier Journal.