Student Advisory Network: Improving Schools & Developing Future Leaders

At the start of last school year, I received an email encouraging me to apply to a new initiative called the New Visions Student Advisory Network. At that time, I really did not know what New Visions was or how it helped support my school. As I pondered whether to apply, I decided to Google “New Visions for Public Schools” and gained a better understanding of the nonprofit and what role the Advisory Network could play in helping fulfilling their goals. Upon further reflection, my decision became clear as I saw how much of a difference I could make in my school. I began drafting my application that night.

The Advisory Network was created in order to listen to what is often a neglected perspective in the quest for school improvement: student voice.  It also provided an opportunity for students to gain research, problem-solving, and leadership skills by conducting a semester-long research project.

After applying and being selected, I joined twelve other students from nine schools in the New Visions Affinity and Charter network.  This student-led initiative initially evaluated different research project proposals that New Visions staff members proposed to the group. Among the proposals we received were: “how internet and social media usage affects students” and “assessing the efficiency of restorative discipline practices.” However, two proposals stood out and were ultimately selected.

The first of the two tasked us with investigating how conversations about current events take place in schools. Our aim was to create resources to encourage more productive conversations in the future. This project was ultimately split into two -- one project group would develop a toolkit for students and faculty to assist with planned conversations about current events, while the other project group would focus on creating recommended actions a school could take when important news breaks. The third and final project group focused on what was working or not working in creating a more equitable environment for all students. All of these projects, we felt, were universal to our members’ schools and potential solutions could be scaled out to other schools in the New Visions network and possibly even beyond.

Over several months, my project group worked to understand what prevented students and teachers from speaking authentically about current events and social issues. In order to dive into this issue, we first needed to compile data on which social issues were most challenging for teachers to speak about in the classroom. We developed a Google Form Survey in which teachers could anonymously rank which topics they felt most comfortable speaking about and why. To make sure that our results were unbiased, we invited teachers from several New Visions schools and made sure to include teachers across a variety of subjects.

We found that a majority of teachers were in favor of introducing meaningful classroom conversations around current events, and reported themselves as being capable of facilitating discussions on a wide range of  topics, such as gender equality, LGBTQIA rights, racial equality, and gun control. Ultimately, educators were most concerned with time constraints, having enough accurate information available, and the possibility of miscommunication.

In order to gather student data and to better understand the teachers’ perspectives, we felt that it would be best to hold a focus group, which was comprised of teachers training to become principals through the New Visions - Hunter College CLASS program and students attending schools within the New Visions Affinity and Charter Network. In the focus group, small teams composed of both students and teachers brainstormed possible solutions and changes that could be made to school environments that would foster meaningful conversations. The amount of feedback we received from participants was incredible. Not only were there a ton of suggestions but they were all quite original as well.

After finishing the research phase, we were ready to start the process of organizing our findings and creating a presentation that we would deliver to New Visions staff members.  Within a month and a half, we had compiled several Google Docs with information from our surveys, notes from each part of our focus group, and developed a slide deck for our presentation. We then went over our slides with a fine tooth comb and made sure that we had our parts of the presentation committed to memory. Our efforts were made worthwhile by the warm reception, respect and feedback we received from dozens of educators who attended the presentation at New Visions.

Some of our recommendations were to ensure that classroom conversations be supervised by teachers who are trained in facilitation skills, which could be made standard through intervisitation and professional development opportunities. Others were made with students in mind, such as instituting classroom norms like QTIP (Quit Taking It Personally) and using sentence starters (I agree with your point about…. I understand you...) during the potentially heated or controversial conversations.

The New Visions Student Advisory Network showed me that my voice matters and that students can affect change in their schools. I am proud of the work I was able to accomplish and would highly recommend this program to any juniors who are in a New Visions school this year.

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