February 1, 2014

Students are Helping Set Educational Policy in Kentucky

By Rachel Belin

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 2012-2013 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, a Henry Clay junior. "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.

Only a few months into its pilot year, members of the Student Voice Team have conducted roundtable discussions with middle- and high-school students from Whitesburg to Bowling Green about a variety of education issues that affect them. But the conversation doesn't end there. These young leaders have also:

  • Testified before the Interim Joint Committee on Education in Frankfort about the importance of student observations in the teacher evaluation process.

  • Shared student perspectives about inadequate funding at a statewide summit and community rally.

  • Created a presentation incorporating student voices on the impact of effective teaching for a professional development conference for hundreds of Kentucky teachers.

They may be too young to vote, but, clearly, these teenagers are not too young to make a contribution to the public discourse on improving Kentucky's schools.

Prichard Committee adults have welcomed this initiative and have guided the Student Voice Team to continue to test what is possible. Beyond installing the first high school student as a full member, the committee is nurturing a larger cadre of youth as informed advocates for improving the education experience.

At the heart of the Student Voice Team is an abiding belief that education is a civil right. To realize the democracy we deserve, we must support our young people to own their own learning. "Students have the ability to be more than just beneficiaries of a strong education system," said Andrew Brennen, a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar. "Many of us also have the desire to be partners in making it better."

This op-ed originally ran in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Rachel Belin

Rachel Belin

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