In a recent post about the Esteban E. Torres High School in East LA, I described powerful examples of students making their voices heard. It should be obvious that a system purporting to educate and develop children needs to let them speak, but since many school systems seem unclear on the concept, I thought I’d provide more evidence.
My son, Joey, is a public school student in Lexington, MA — one of the state’s top-performing school districts, in the country’s top performing state, whose per pupil expenditure is $17,500. Last year Joey, then a sixth grader, came to me and said:
“Dad, remember how you told me Lexington’s schools are so much better funded than Sacramento’s? Well, in history we are learning how to check the accuracy of our sources and facts, and guess what? Our modern European history textbook still refers to Russia as the Soviet Union!”
“Great catch Joey,” I exclaimed. “How about we go to a school board meeting and you share that your textbook hasn’t been updated since 1991?”
“That’s crazy,” he laughed. “I’m just a kid. They don’t want to hear from me!”
Just the opposite, Joe. Every school board, administrator, principal and teacher needs to hear from you and your millions of fellow students. This system of public education was meant to serve you. Unless it hears your voice, it can’t.
I’ll never forget my first year in Sacramento. The budget cuts of around $27 million we were forced to make came on top of several years of reductions. We held budget forums throughout our community, to inform and educate our families and seek suggestions. Then I met with the student body representatives, and asked them point blank: If you were in my shoes, what would you cut, and what would be off the table? As they went around the table, one theme in particular resounded. “Don’t cut band!” “It’s my reason for coming to school.” “It’s my passion!”
We didn’t cut band. In fact, we worked hard to add back more arts and music despite the fiscal challenges. We got creative. We used federal funds for improving academic achievement in disadvantaged areas. We did whatever we could to give kids reasons to be excited about learning. We gave life to their voice.
When students feel valued, respected, safe, and cared for, they allow us to teach them. When they know they have a voice — when the system designed for them actually listens to them — amazing things happen. Just ask the kids of Project Green Teams in Sacramento which, with guidance from committed and patient adults, put together plans and designs to green their schools, receiving thousands of dollars for the district to implement their ideas. Bold? No, we just listened and acted.
Meeting children where they are, giving them voice, and designing a system that respects their voice is the very foundation of whole child education. Educating and developing the whole child is the Stuart Foundation’s top priority, and we’re honored to work with leaders in the field, who consistently heed the voices of children.