Not “Having a Seat at the Table,” but Moving Tables and Creating Brand New Ones

How high school students in Kentucky are driving Covid-era educational research

The Prichard Committee Student Voice Team (SVT) has been around for about eight years, co-designed by a team of Kentucky high school students in partnership with the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Headquartered in Lexington, Kentucky with members throughout the state, they are re-imagining education by positioning students as partners in the decisions made about Kentucky schools. Students in Prichard SVT have taken part in everything from conducting education research to testifying at the state capitol to facilitating workshops for fellow students around public policy that affects them. Gabriella fondly recalls her first time at the capital. Running around from one meeting to another — it all felt so dramatic, she tells us. But empowering.

Zoe Jenkins, a rising high school senior in the SVT, believes it’s not about having a seat at the table, it’s about moving tables and making brand new ones. And that’s exactly what the young people involved in the SVT have been doing. For Sanaa Kahloon, Gabriella Staykova, Krupa Hegde, and Zoe, four of the 100 self-selected students serving on Prichard SVT, this organization has been an important part of their growth as youth leaders. “So much of life as a minor is about juggling power dynamics,” Sanaa says. “Being in school feels like being herded like cattle, being told when to sit and be quiet.I love the work I get to do with Prichard SVT that shows that young people are capable of so much more than sitting down and shutting up,” Sanaa says. Every time she gets the space to think deeply about institutional issues, every time she gets to go to the capitol and meet representatives, it’s a rush. It’s a concrete way of being reminded of her own power.

The students who represent the SVT would be the first to tell you that this work is not only about them and their leadership. When she was on the school’s superintendent advisory council, Krupa’s biggest realization was that young people who were actually impacted by decisions weren’t the ones being asked about them. Instead, as senior (adult) director Rachel Belin describes it, high school is so often about pitting best against best and picking a single winner. The SVT wants to amplify all of the voices in the system. Create more opportunities for students to collaborate and be heard. The Coping with COVID student-to-student survey is an example of the power of youth collaboration. Soon after schools closed, the team developed and disseminated a survey they administered across the state about the impacts of COVID on student life and learning.

Currently, Zoe, Gabriella, Sanaa, Krupa, and their Prichard SVT colleagues are knee-deep in analyzing the nearly 13,000 responses from all 120 of Kentucky’s counties elicited by their survey. Zoe and Krupa, who work more on the quantitative side of things, have finished cleaning and coding the data. Sanaa, who works more on the qualitative side of things, has been leading the efforts to read and code responses, which, in her words, involves “a lot of Google sheets, meetings, and words I didn’t understand until kind people explained them to me.” Gabriella, who works primarily on policy, is looking at the demographic breakdowns of the questions around returning to school and remote learning. While they are still drawing conclusions from the data, they are finding that students’ feelings toward flexible attendance policies and remote learning are stratified by class. In general, students with more opportunity don’t see a need for more flexible policies. It’s findings like these that they will put into district-specific reports that will help districts make equitable decisions about going back to school in the fall.

“The SVT is such a good fit for the students serving in it because it was created in their image,” Rachel says. “They are doing legislative work, researching, blogging, mobilizing, podcasting, and presenting because of the unique passions and capacities individual students bring to the team.” The organization reflects these students’ creation at every level, and Rachel believes that co-design is something that’s often missing from the way traditional education systems serve students.

And what do these students need from those learning about the SVT? A new understanding. Sanaa wants people to understand what youth are capable of doing, given the right partnership. Every young person has the potential to do the type of work that SVT students are doing. Krupa wants students to be consulted and partnered with when decisions that impact them are being made. Zoe wants us to get creative in how we’re incorporating student voice. To think about equity, and not to lift up only the voices of those who are willing and able to hop on a zoom call and share their experiences. Gabriella wants us to be careful in our reimagining of education. If we’re doing that re-imagining independent of students, what we’re imagining is not going to work. We need collaboration, genuine outreach. Rachel has learned that the team needs to keep searching for ways — like their Edquity Fellowship, which SVT high schoolers created to bring under-served students into the fold for more targeted support — for those young people who are farthest from the mic to have their voices heard and lead the work too. The SVT is currently about 15% young people of color and is actively working to bring the numbers up.

And amidst the demands of their leadership, these four are still finding time to be young people. Sanaa jokes that she’s become every COVID Twitter trend you can find: going on walks, baking, organizing and reorganizing her schedule. Krupa has been long-boarding around her neighborhood while listening to podcasts. Gabriella is skateboarding a lot more, and learning to cook — before this quarantine she didn’t know how to scramble an egg. Zoe is connecting with other young people to launch diversity and inclusion programming for Gen Z’ers. As a primary adult partner, Rachel is learning how to chill. She’s reading and writing, but hasn’t been planting gardens or becoming a gourmet chef. Because the work of supporting these young people is so energizing. Helping them in their work is different every day, every second. To learn more about Prichard and the work they’re doing, follow them on social media @pcstuvoiceteam.

Prichard SVT was an awardee of the inaugural Enduring Ideas award, given by The Reinvention Lab and powered by Teach For America. To learn more about all Enduring Ideas awardees, click here.

Illustration is by Drew Madson. Madson is an award-winning illustrator, educator, caricaturist, and doodler. His work has been featured in Harvard Ed. Week Magazine, The Harvard Citizen, CSB/SJU Record, and more.