September/October 2022

A Seat at the Table: Amplifying Student Voice

By Jadon A. Waller
Many school districts in Illinois have created opportunities for students’ voices to be heard. We know that students’ voices are imperative to the work that we are doing, so we must hear from them. More often than not, teachers are encouraged to solicit feedback from students so that teachers can reflect on their practices to best meet the needs of their students. In Oswego CUSD 308, our students’ voices are given a seat at the table with school board members and district administrators. Many students throughout the school district have lived experiences and opinions about how we can improve to make the school district more inclusive and equitable for all students. Superintendent John Sparlin, Ed.D., along with the school board, developed a Superintendent Student Advisory Committee. The Committee includes three seniors and two juniors from Oswego and Oswego East High Schools, with two Student Ambassadors attending, reporting, and participating in each school board meeting. Colton Sannito, a senior from Oswego High, and Aanya Roy, a junior from Oswego East, carefully and thoughtfully conveyed the desires and recommendations of all high school students throughout the school district.
Trusting the Process
The Superintendent Student Advisory Committee began last school year with the purpose of determining the best way to learn the desires and priority concerns of CUSD 308’s high school students. The five members created a student survey that asked students to rank areas that heavily impacted their quality of life in school. The survey was broken down into four categories: Academic Focus, School Structure, Social Climate, and Student-to-Student Interactions. The results of the survey were then disaggregated and from there, the students found impactful information. Here are the top results that aided in the committee developing a focus for the 2021-2022 school year:

  • Academic Focus: The amount of homework and how it impacts mental health
  • School Structure: Clarity from administration on how discipline is handled based on race, identity, and sexual harassment
  • Social Climate: Increase in representation of LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC cultures within the schools
  • Student-to-Student Interactions: Sexual harassment needs to be addressed
In addition to learning about the students’ priority needs, the survey also helped the district learn that out of the nearly 3,000 students who participated in the survey, almost 20% indicated that they are a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. The results of the survey sparked discussion within and between the committee, district administration, and school board. It was clear that students know what they need and they also recognize another need: For the educators and leaders guiding them to listen.

One student, Jayla Poindexter, now a senior at Oswego East and member of The Student Coalition, expressed that “it’s important to listen to students’ voices because students know themselves better than the adults making decisions do. We know what we need best. It’s especially important to listen to voices from historically marginalized groups because they are underrepresented most of the time. Their voices are going to be heard less because there are less of them around.”
Many students felt heard and seen because of the committee’s survey. For the committee, it heightened the importance of following through for their peers.
Taking Action
The Superintendent Advisory Committee decided to focus on the priority student-to-student interaction concern of sexual harassment. There was much conversation about students’ mental health and how the committee could contribute to the improvement of that through this focus on sexual harassment. The committee began the YPAR (Youth Participatory Action Research) process. The students researched articles and qualitatively determined patterns and themes, but realized they still needed to hear more from their peers. Thus, they developed a second survey broken down into three categories: Student Educational Awareness About Sexual Harassment, Student Safety and Reporting, and Sexual Harassment and Mental Health. The results of this survey allowed the committee to develop a Sexual Harassment Action Plan that will be implemented in the 2022-2023 school year. Plus, the students were able to review the current Sexual Harassment Policy to add additional language that is student-friendly. Here are highlights from the Sexual Harassment Action Plan:

  • Creating a Safe Space Ambassador Teacher Committee for both high schools, with indicators for their classroom doors
  • Developing a Staff and Parent University to train and provide important information regarding sexual harassment and how to support students
  • Expanding social worker support through increase of educational awareness via Google classroom; use of QR codes throughout the school to provide information and support; and a student brochure covering safety, education, and reporting
  • Working with Student Services building and district administrators to collaborate and communicate to support the increases in structures put in place
  • Providing, to all students, an opening message led by the social workers in each building

Arriyana Franklin, a senior from Oswego High School, shared “My time serving on the Superintendent Student Advisory Committee for Oswego CUSD 308 was nothing short of an honor. At first, I did not recognize that my role on the committee came with so much empowerment for my community until I saw how many of my peers, mostly Black and Brown, came to me with their concerns within their high schools in hopes that I could make a change.
“I made it a priority to speak for my school,” Franklin continued, “Because voices from my walks of life have been overshadowed in the past. I am so excited to witness the platform be given to other students with interest in making a change and using their voice.”
Many students from historically marginalized groups utilized each inquiry as an opportunity to be heard. 
The Student Coalition
Not only did District 308 create space for students’ voices at the school board level, but the district was also challenged to create a student committee for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to amplify students’ voices. 
As the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, I felt it imperative to create a space for students’ voices to be heard throughout the community; especially voices from marginalized groups that might not typically be heard. The Student Coalition is composed of 22 students from different cultural backgrounds, religion, gender identity, access to academics, and socio-economic status. 
This group of students was recommended by teachers, engaged in an application process, and then began meeting in early 2022. The students came together to share their experiences; engage in training on diversity, equity, and inclusion; and to ultimately find their voice as co-conspirators for each other. The students put together an event called “Amplify.” This group participated as a panel by developing questions they always wanted to share their answers to. In addition to the panel, many students, including a “True Colors” club for LGBTQIA+ students, shared their stories through skits, poetry, speeches, music, and art. Through Amplify, The Coalition touched educators, building and district administrators, school board members, peers, and community members. Their stories pressed the importance of being a part of a school community, being seen in the classroom, and being valued though their needs do not always align with the societal standards and norms that are historically in place. 
Our district has learned so much from our students. They have shown us that they know what they need and they want to work together with all of us to make sure that structures are in place to ensure student safety, that classrooms are rigorous and provide access to various perspectives, that who they are and who they desire to be is seen as valuable and important, that their gender, identity, socio-economic status, culture, race, and aptitude for learning is intentionally recognized by the community, board members, district and building leaders, their teachers, peers, and their families. Our students are courageous and ready to tackle issues together. They see how policies and practices impact them and they want to be heard so they can be successful life learners. They want to learn and have an understanding of how the world works so they can be civically responsible. They want the opportunity to be an essential part of how we make decisions for our students. They deserve all of the seats at the table.

Jadon A. Waller, Ed.D., is Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Family Engagement at CUSD 308 in Oswego.