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Elevating Student Voice Beyond the Walkouts

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Pam Moran and Debbie Collins are the superintendent and assistant superintendent, respectively, of Albemarle County Public Schools (Va.), near the city of Charlottesville. The Learning is Social and Emotional team spoke with Moran and Collins about how the district is approaching student agency and voice, and how it connects with their ongoing work to support students' social, emotional, and academic development. This is part one of that conversation. Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

1. ACPS recently incorporated students' voices in the teacher recruitment process in a really interesting way. Can you tell us more about that? How did students' participation in social, emotional, and academic skill building prepare them for this? Did they highlight social and emotional skills as a desired attribute in their teachers?

Pam: We're constantly trying to think about how we can attract teachers who have the qualities we value. At the top of that list are teachers who can build positive relationships with kids. And by that same token, there's no better ambassador for reaching out to prospective teachers than students themselves.

IMG_3101.jpgSo recently we put together a small group of ACPS students of all ages, elementary to high school, who come to the district office regularly to help us solve problems and give their perspectives. They helped us brainstorm characteristics of great teachers, write a marketing plan, develop social media material―everything we needed to recruit teachers who are set up for success here.

Debbie: And the process wouldn't have happened as easily or positively if these students didn't have a good social and emotional foundation. I recall one of the older boys turning to an elementary school student and saying, "I haven't heard from you yet―what do you think about this?" That's exactly the kind of inclusive mindset we hope our teachers are modeling, and exactly the kind of skill we want our kids to develop.

2. Recent months have seen a wave of students organizing and speaking up on issues they care about. How has ACPS approached the surge in student activism--including the recent student walkout?

Pam: In my opinion, it's a wonderful example of authentic learning. When the walkout movement started emerging, everyone―principals, superintendents, parents, staff―started asking what we were going to do. And we decided very quickly, in talking to the full community, that what we needed to do was support our students' natural inclination to speak up for what they believe in. It brought attention to a critical issue for kids and their parents: are we doing everything we can to make sure students are safe?

It didn't surprise me to see this emerge. This generation of kids is very active in the digital world and are very comfortable knowing how to communicate with each other and with the world. And they are a generation of activists―they are concerned about the social issues facing their communities.

Debbie: Pam, along with other division staff, spent the day at various schools in the district and we were both struck by the same thing: the mutual respect between adults and students. I saw principals and teachers interacting with student organizers in the best way I can imagine: two people talking about something they had a mutual interest in. Kids came up and shook our hands to thank us for giving them the space to organize and speak.

Pam: We should also note that there were plenty of kids with differing opinions! But what I saw was that whether students chose to participate or not, this was a pure, authentic opportunity to see the Bill of Rights and our nation's core values at work. It was a real-world assessment of their understanding in a safe environment. Our kids really respected us and vice-versa, and that doesn't happen by chance. Because it can go in another direction.

3. More broadly, why is elevating student voice and agency important to the district and how does this relate to the district's efforts to support students' social, emotional, and academic growth?

Debbie: The question made me smile because I thought, "Who else would we listen to?" If you don't have students in the center, you have to ask who you're designing for. School has to resonate with students. It's about how you involve them in as authentic a way as possible.

Pam: We have a very integrated, systems-oriented approach that we apply to students' social, emotional, and academic development. Over the years we've shifted our focus from "equity and access" to "equity and opportunity," because we want to ensure that every new initiative is for all kids, not just some. And that applies to our social and emotional learning work as well. Obviously we want to make sure that when students come to us with chronic stress or adverse childhood experiences, we're providing the scaffolding and support they need. But every one of our students deserves social and emotional support.

We want students to have a set of "success for life" competencies. That means not just having a great disciplinary record, a good report card, high self-awareness―those things are all great individually. But we ask ourselves, "When our kids leave us, have we prepared them for life, not just for school?"

Photo: Pam Moran, courtesy of ACPS

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