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Empowering Students of Color Through Student-Led Conferences

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This post is by Dino Mangano and Mark Friday, Deans of Culture at University Preparatory Academy in Detroit, Michigan

In one of the most provocative posts that has appeared in this blog, Jal Mehta noted, "Deeper learning has historically been the province of the advantaged--those who could afford to send their children to the best private schools and to live in the most desirable school districts." At University Prep high school in downtown Detroit, history is changing. The faces of our students and teachers are almost all brown and black. The student body is 99 percent African American, with 83 percent qualifying for free and reduced lunch. In this school, with these students, we embrace the belief that all students can learn and lead their own learning--with passion, creativity, and perseverance toward personalized learning goals.

Over the last two years, we have begun to implement the deeper learning practices of EL Education, starting with building a culture that prioritizes empowering students. Although UPrep students wear uniforms, it's a school that also celebrates student voice and choice. Students are encouraged by teachers as well as administration to take ownership of the culture of the school. For example, students recently suggested instituting morning "Pick Me Ups," quick, positive, student-led morning meetings for entire grade levels. So, we piloted one just a few weeks ago, learned from the experience, and the students are currently planning the next one.

The latest step on our journey to being an EL Education school has been to transform traditional parent/teacher conferences into student-led conferences (SLCs). Historically, conference night was an eye-rolling affair, sparsely attended by parents who drifted from teacher to teacher in a gym full of tables, bored looking teenager in tow, to discuss a grade they couldn't do anything about. It was an arduous process that didn't involve our students at all.

Putting students in charge of their own conferences changed both the logistics and the outcomes for our culture entirely. We cancelled classes for the day, and held an open-house format day, from 10 am to 6 pm. Parents scheduled specific, 20-minute time slots ahead of time with their child's Crew Leader, and that was to be the sole focus for the day. Each conference consisted of the student, the parent, and the Crew leader. At the end of the conference, a short five-question survey was given to parents on a laptop just outside the classroom. Refreshments were provided, student-volunteer hosts were available at every building, administrators rotated through the buildings, answering questions and chatting with parents. The entire atmosphere was positive and welcoming.

The conferences themselves were powerful. Students presented themselves to their parents through the lens of their work. The conversation between them and their parents shifted from a discussion of grades to the discussion of successes and challenges in doing school work and to fruitful decision making about actions students could take to not only improve grades but to reach their own goals and get back on the path toward a future they envisioned for themselves. This video of a student-led conference in another EL Education school illustrates this dynamic.

Putting students at the center as advocates for their own learning has also increased parent engagement in our school. Because these were our first student-led conferences, we solicited parent feedback about the process and the outcomes.  When asked to rate their overall experience at the SLC's, 98 percent of the parents gave a rating of positive or strongly positive, with 68 percent choosing strongly positive. Seventy-six percent preferred or strongly preferred the student-led conferences to traditional parent-teacher conferences.

Anecdotally, what we noticed is that both parents and students were far more engaged during SLCs compared to our traditional conferences, where families would go from line to line, waiting to talk to a teacher about a grade they already had through Powerschool, while the students would either look bored (if their grades were good) or scared (if their grades were poor), but either way, definitely not engaged in the process. During the SLCs, since the entire focus was on the student and what they were saying, the students were fully engaged, and as it was their own child presenting, parents were also interested and focused.

Student-led conferences reinforce our students' growth mindset, giving them opportunities to reflect on mistakes and imagine revisions that will rechart their academic career. The greatest and most important lesson, however, is that our students--all students--are empowered by speaking for themselves, by valuing the evidence of their work as a measure of academic achievement, and by the exercise of reflection and dialogue with the people who care most about their success.

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