Elevating The Voice of Those We Are Called to Serve — System Design with Student Engagement and Voice
Kay A. Augustine, Iowa Department of Education
Student engagement within the educational setting is critical for establishing a sense of belonging and connected relationships that are needed to thrive within a learning environment. Research has shown that absenteeism, social isolation, behavior issues, truancy, dropping out, and mental health issues are observable in environments where a connection of students with peers and adults is lacking.
National statistics show that millions of students each year are not engaged in their learning, mental health issues are rising, and although national graduation statistics are moving up, there are still a large percentage of students not completing their PK-12 education. This ultimately impacts the lives of these students into adulthood and has a significant impact on their health, their family, community engagement and financial impact on our communities, businesses, states, and country.
The good news is that, more than ever before, educators are implementing evidence-based
practices and utilizing brain science to understand and develop systems to meet the needs of our students. One of those basic needs is for a foundation of authentic relationships and a sense of belonging. Students are capable of participating in their own learning and have a unique lens on how the environment impacts their ability to learn as well as how to actively engage in their school and community to address academic, social, emotional, and physical safety.
Schools and communities throughout Iowa and around the world are finding young people thirsty for opportunities to use their voice for change. There are wonderful leadership programs, service-learning opportunities, school clubs, before/after school programs, and community youth-serving organizations providing youth with civic and service opportunities. Youth-serving organizations are significantly ahead of schools in implementing research-based, positive youth development strategies providing opportunities for youth voice in decision-making. The implementation of positive youth development strategies are not how schools have traditionally viewed student voice. If you think back to your years in PK-12, you most likely will remember that the majority of student leadership opportunities in your school focused on students who are already successful and have leadership experience. In most places, that is still the norm.
Our challenge is to create examples of policy and processes that assist educational entities to include student engagement and voice as a comprehensive and sustained part of their system. This includes authentically engaging students in student/adult partnerships collecting, reviewing, analyzing, problem-solving, and generating action to create learning environments where they tackle the small to large issues of concern. The other challenge is to empower schools to provide these opportunities through participation that mirrors the demographics of the school including students who are struggling academically, socially, and/or emotionally who need their voices heard as well.
We know that our students, given more agency, opportunities for engagement, and an opportunity to share their voice in these systems will lead to positive outcomes in their social-emotional learning and academic achievement that will serve them both while they are in school and as they move forward into the world.
While for some, student engagement and voice implies engagement in societal and political issues. The Phase 1 efforts are focused specifically on school climate through Iowa’s new required annual school climate assessment for grades 3-12, Conditions for Learning (CfL), one component of our Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) process. While we know that there is a growing body of research and resources for students becoming more genuinely engaged in how they learn in the classroom, that is the next Phase of the work.
The focus of our Impact Plan is on student engagement through student/adult partnerships addressing the data from CfL as a first step of encouraging student engagement and voice as a sustainable component of a Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS). All Iowa schools will be encouraged to include authentic and comprehensive student engagement and voice within their ongoing MTSS process for the review, analysis, and problem-solving for CfL’s five constructs of: Adult/Student Relationships, Student/Student Relationships, Emotional Safety, Physical Safety, and Expectations and Boundaries.
While the completion of the CfL annual survey is one step in the process of finding out how students perceive these constructs, the plan calls for additional, systematic engagement of students in the understanding, review, analysis, strategy identification, and action as an ongoing part of the multi-tiered system of supports. Based on the success of the Iowa Safe and Supportive Schools (IS3) efforts of 2009-2014 using this survey and toolkits providing a student/adult partnership process with a small number of schools, it was found to be not only inspiring for the students, but for the adults in the district/building as well. The original focus of IS3 on high schools will be expanded to include all grades taking CfL from 3rd-12th. The plan includes updating the Toolkits for each construct to provide a sequential process for schools to purposefully and authentically engage students with the data and problem-solving.
Through ISE, participating schools using the CfL survey and the processes outlined in the corresponding Toolkits demonstrated the positive impact this process can have. Over a five year period, 100% of schools with fully implemented interventions and sufficient data reported a decrease in student alcohol use; 81% reported a decrease in harassment or bullying on school property; 90% reported improved school safety scores; and 62% reported a reduction in the number of suspensions due to violence without serious injury.
IDOE will create the specifics of what is needed for training and coaching to help schools implement student/adult partnerships addressing CfL. Typically in Iowa, the regional Area Education Agencies (AEAs) provide direct training and coaching services to local districts and buildings. IDOE, in collaboration with the AEAs, has established a training cadre process to coordinate both content and processes by and between IDOE and the AEAs for the local school districts/buildings.
While the main focus is on district and building engagement of students, it is important IDOE models the importance of listening to the voices of Iowa students. To do so, an annual student forum will be held to provide students who have participated in the process in their own district/building to share not only their collective concerns and ideas, but also share the strategies and outcomes they have implemented in their own schools. As IDOE and invited AEA staff interact with students from across Iowa they will have a perspective not currently available to align with their work.
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