Education

Students need more voice in Kentucky schools, report says

Prichard Committee Student Voice Team member Eliza Jane Schaeffer, a recent graduate of Lexington’s Henry Clay High School, shared preliminary data in January from the Students as Partners report with the Fayette County Public Schools board.
Prichard Committee Student Voice Team member Eliza Jane Schaeffer, a recent graduate of Lexington’s Henry Clay High School, shared preliminary data in January from the Students as Partners report with the Fayette County Public Schools board. Prichard Committee Student Voice Team

Kentucky’s Prichard Committee Student Voice Team has received national attention for its advocacy on issues such as increasing school funding in Kentucky.

But in a report called Students as Partners released this week under the leadership of a recent Henry Clay High School graduate, student voice leaders who surveyed 189 schools in Kentucky found that students lack a prominent voice in school improvement.

“We hope this report will encourage Kentucky to recognize that in strengthening the partnership between young people and adults, we have a valuable opportunity to improve our school system,” said Eliza Jane Schaeffer, a recent Henry Clay graduate and the project leader.

The report showed that six percent of school decision-making councils have advisory student members and two percent have voting student members. The school districts with voting student members on their councils have waivers from the state because they are classified as districts of innovation, said Rachel Belin, senior director of the student voice team.

Nine percent of school boards have student members, but all of them are advisory, as in Fayette County. Nine out of every 10 district boards of education exclude students.

Allowing student representation with voting members would require a change in Kentucky law.

Because Kentucky law limits school board membership to citizens over the age of 24 and school council membership to parents, teachers and administrators, students are largely unrepresented.

However, the focus of the report is not on changing the law, but in “simply building capacity in students and schools to allow for students to work in more meaningful ways as full partners in school improvement efforts,” Belin said.

School districts can include students now in discussions at the local board table and with school councils, said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

“Including students as partners, in substantive conversations, benefits schools as much it benefits students,” Ramsey said.

The report said that 53 percent of school councils would be willing to add a student member and that 46 percent of school boards surveyed would be willing to add a student member.

Seventy-four percent of schools in Kentucky have a student council, but only one in three were described as having meaningful duties beyond social planning, the report said

The report, released Tuesday at a student-led event in Eminence, includes response from Central Kentucky educators about student voice.

“Every decision being made is impacting students. It makes sense for them to have representation at the table,” Tara Howard, principal of Mercer County High School, said in the report.

“For many students, public education is their only ticket to a life of prosperity, and they need to feel welcomed and heard as they share the positives and negatives within the school system,” Brison Harvey, a teacher at Lafayette High School, said in the report.

The report offers recommendations that include creating a formal platform where students can share their perspectives with educators.

Schools can engage students in ways other than representation on governance panels, the report said. “They can work to see students as co-creators, empower students to gather feedback from their peers, and provide students with a formal platform from which to voice their opinions.”

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears

The Students as Partners report can be read at prichardcommittee.org.

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