What do students want? Ask them.
High school students tell us what’s working at their schools and what we can do to better prepare them for life beyond graduation
Fewer worksheets. Teachers who care about you as an individual. More field trips and internships. Safe campuses. And, above all, way more help applying to college.
That’s what high school students in nine U.S. cities said they would change about their education, to make it more engaging, useful, and relevant to their lives. The comments came at a series of candid roundtable discussions XQ hosted in Denver, San Diego, Nashville, Memphis, Los Angeles and other cities as a way to gather student insights and inspiration about rethinking high school in America.
As part of its mission, XQ believes students’ opinions and ideas are a critical part of redesigning high schools. XQ student roundtables are scheduled in every city that’s hosting XQ Super School Live, a performance in collaboration with Pop-Up Magazine to inspire people to reimagine high schools in their communities. Future XQ Super School Live shows are scheduled for Chicago (March 30), Virginia Beach (April 25), and Seattle (May 2).
Students had plenty to say about their high schools.
“My school focuses on curriculum a lot. That’s OK but I want to be a doctor, and sometimes I think I might not be learning everything I need — like how to apply for college, how to do taxes, that kind of thing,” said Brooke, an 11th grader who participated in the San Diego roundtable. “When you’re 16 or 17 years old, you don’t want to listen to lectures all day.”
Cameron, a student at the Denver roundtable, echoed that sentiment.
“At my school, there was only one class that prepared me for work, and that was an arts class,” he said. “Other classes, like math and science, don’t let us experience what the world is like right now. For example, I learned the Pythagorean theorem but you can’t use that (in the real world). I don’t know how to buy a house without getting scammed. I don’t know how to buy a car. We don’t learn these things in high school even though we’re there 40 hours a week.”
More than 100 students, of all backgrounds, participated in the roundtable discussions, sharing their reflections on high school, what they’d like to improve, and their hopes for the future. Although every student’s experience is unique, a few themes emerged. Students overwhelmingly said they felt unprepared for the college application process, and that it should start much sooner than senior year.
Destiny, a 12th grader who took part in the San Diego gathering, said she would have benefitted from more SAT and ACT preparation, help with college financial aid forms, more guidance on taking college-prep classes and picking colleges, career counseling, and help with college application essays.
By the time some of those services were available, she felt it was too late. That’s especially true for students whose parents did not go to college, she said.
“The timing is tricky,” she said. “Junior year is when we should have started. I really want to go to college, but I feel we didn’t enough information about how the whole process actually works.”
Student voice and input over campus culture is an important factor in academic success, students said. Students said they looked forward to school and felt more connected to teachers, classmates and the community generally when they had some say in their own education — what classes they take, what they study, and whether teachers and staff listen to them.
In Denver, for example, some students had spent the day lobbying at the State Capitol for a bill that would give 16- and 17-year-olds the right to vote. Others were working on issues surrounding adolescent mental health, depression and suicide, and another group was lobbying to change the name of a local high school that honors a former mayor with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
“I’m a strong believer than my voice is part of my community,” Jacky, a Denver student, said. “At my school, anyone can start a club and people are quick to join. Where I come from, people are outspoken about what they like and will advocate for that.”
Pride, too, was a recurring theme at the roundtables. Students were proud of their accomplishments, proud of their families, in many cases proud of their schools, and confident about their futures. They also said adults routinely underestimate them.
In Los Angeles, the facilitator said to the students, “What motivates me is proving people wrong. Stand up if you agree.” Every student in the room stood up.
“The haters motivate me to do better,” said Michelle, a 10th grader, addressing her fellow students. “Everyone should put that in their mind. That you can accomplish your dreams no matter what other people say.”
For some students, the roundtable itself was transformative. Meeting students from other schools broadened their perspectives, and they vowed to keep in touch with each other — and XQ — afterwards.
In Nashville, students from very different high schools on opposite sides of the state found they actually had a lot in common. Both groups agreed students are often treated differently based on their grades, and that good teachers can make all the difference.
But they also noticed differences. George, a student at a low-performing school, said he thought students at his school had a voice in campus culture until he heard from students at the other school, in a rural middle-class town five hours away.
“I said we have student voice because we got to design our Black History Month event, but ya’ll have way more freedom than we do,” he said. “We’re right in downtown Nashville but we can’t even leave our school. Ya’ll get out a bunch.”
In Los Angeles, students a 10th grader named Brooklyn said the roundtables changed her perspective. Hearing about other students’ experiences gave her ideas about what she’d like to see happen at her school, and how she can advocate for herself.
“I feel motivated and inspired to make a change,” she said. “I feel a sense of community. … I feel educated.”
XQ recently launched “Give Me Five,” a conversational newsletter for educators and ed leaders ready to rethink high school. We find, summarize, and curate five stories every two weeks that educators can put into action. Sign up now