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Not Your Average Student Council: How Chicago’s Student Voice Committees Are Giving Kids a Real Say in Their Schools

By Kate Stringer | November 12, 2018

Students from last year’s Student Voice Committee at Mather High School pose for a photo, including (standing from left) Anna Morys, Minaz Khatoon, Rohit Khanal, and their adviser, Ryan Solan. (Chicago Public Schools)

The students at Mather High School in Chicago wanted to do something. Their peers said they didn’t feel comfortable coming to school, weren’t paying attention in class, and sometimes skipped lessons altogether.

So a small group of students tried to figure out what the root of the problem might be. They talked to their classmates, interviewed teachers, and researched what other schools were doing to help students feel connected. Finally, they decided they were going to improve the relationships between the school’s 100 teachers and 1,500 students.

If they could do this, “students would feel much more comfortable in class and teachers would feel more motivated to work and have a mutual respect between them so these problems would decrease,” senior Minaz Khatoon said.

“It’s also not only our opinion,” senior Anna Morys added. “We also read a lot of research that proves that students who had better relationships with their teachers have higher grades and more self-confidence.”

It was a daunting task, but one well within the mission of these 30 high schoolers who were part of the school’s student voice committee, one of many student-led groups across Chicago Public Schools that aim to give students a more meaningful say in their education.

Chicago’s student voice committees are not your grandma’s student council. Actually, they probably aren’t your student council. They don’t plan prom, they don’t pick themed days for spirit week, they don’t run campaigns to get elected. Instead, these students conduct surveys and hold town halls and interview their peers and teachers to figure out how to make their schools better. And in the best-case scenarios, they get the adults in the building to pay attention.

“Our ultimate goal is that when teachers and administrators are making a decision that impacts students, they should be asking students,” said Cristina Salgado, the student voice specialist for Chicago Public Schools’ Department of Social Science and Civic Engagement. “Students are the experts. They have been in school most of their lives, they have a lot to say, and we need to listen.”

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One of the largest and most unified national student movements arose this past spring, after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, as hundreds of thousands walked out of class to protest gun violence. But in Chicago, where the district launched its plan to amplify student voices six years ago, students have sought to advocate for themselves for a long time.

The initiative is part of a larger effort to improve civics education — which also includes requiring civics or AP government classes and community service for graduation — and the district is close to achieving its goal of having a student voice committee in every high school. So far, 70 of the 90 district-run high schools have a committee, and 45 middle schools have one as well.

When student voice committees begin, the goal may simply be to improve school lunch, Salgado said, but eventually students move to larger projects. Julian High School improved student attendance by 3 percent over three months when its student voice committee gave rewards to students who showed up to class every day. Washington High School’s committee shifted the school day earlier so more students could participate in afterschool activities before it got dark, a successful change that increased involvement.

One school even started including students in curriculum meetings and discussions around social-emotional learning. That’s the “next level” Salgado said: when adults include students in any decision that affects them.

At Mather, students created a presentation to share with educators at the beginning of the school year to teach them about improving student-teacher relationships.

At first, teachers were confused because they thought students wanted friendships rather than professional relationships. But the students explained that they were looking for the “golden mean” between friendship and professionalism, said senior Rohit Khanal. The students gave teachers practical suggestions, like holding doors open for students, checking in to see how they’re doing, and leading activities such as “I wish my teacher knew,” which encourages students to write down information about their lives that their teachers should be aware of.

“In today’s world, a lot of kids go through a lot, and they don’t really have people to speak with,” Khanal said. “If teachers only have that professional relationship with them, then students don’t really feel comfortable going to their teachers to talk about their own life.”

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The committee at Mather, which is in its second year, meets every week for an hour and a half. As is the rule at all Chicago schools, it’s open to any student who wants to join. The faculty advisers are supposed to encourage students who might not necessarily participate in student leadership to join, ensuring that the clubs represent the entire student body.

The advisers attend professional development where they learn about adultism — the attitude that adults are better than teens and children — and how that mindset inhibits student voice. The training also helps teachers support student projects, from identifying issues to researching solutions.

Mather’s committee adviser, chemistry teacher Ryan Solan, said that at most schools, decisions rest with the adults even though students make up the overwhelming majority of the school’s population. At Mather, “We’re here to help students learn and we’re here to help them get better,” he said, “and what better way than to let them have a voice in school and to let them make decisions?”

Even though their teacher is present, Aman Zulfiqar, a junior, said the students always lead the meeting and come up with their own ideas. “Mr. Solan helps us conduct those ideas in a professional way so that principals and teachers can analyze those ideas and take them into account,” Zulfiqar said. Last year, to take a pulse of the student population, the student voice committee conducted a survey that drew responses from 600 of their peers.

Their work in the club has garnered interest from other students, and more have joined because of it — something the students said they’re proud of.

“We want our community to be not only a place to improve school, but also for students to come and talk about any topics they feel passionate about,” Khanal said.

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