A windowless, brick-walled conference room seems an unlikely place to have an epiphany, and yet this is precisely where I found myself when a lightbulb sparked in my brain (and it wasn’t just the pop of the flickering fluorescent lights above me — I checked.)
I remember it well because it was the moment I realized that the one and only reason I was sitting in that room — the only reason any of my 1,000 district colleagues came to work each day – was because of the students.
In my early days as a school communicator, I’d viewed the students merely as the “subjects” of our district’s story, and myself as the omniscient narrator. With words and images, I sought to convey everything unique and special about our school community.
The only problem was I forgot to ask the students.
I emerged from that dimly lit conference room with new eyes, and as my vision slowly adjusted back to the light of day, I vowed to look for ways to illuminate student voice in every aspect of my work.
Giving students the opportunities and platforms to use their voices is critical not only to honor their experiences but also for school leaders to gain a better understanding of what matters to students.
In a recent article, Barnett Barry, a senior research fellow for the Learning Policy Institute and founding director of Accelerator for Learning and Leadership for South Carolina said, “If you are working to create a more inclusive curriculum that prepares young people to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and initiators of their own learning, you have to listen and learn from them as well.”
No one understands the student experience like the students; even more importantly, no two students’ experiences are the same. When we pass the microphone to the students, we uplift their perspectives and show them that they are valued as active participants in their own education and that they have a right to be heard.
Here are three easy ways to give power to your district’s greatest asset and amplify student voice.
Enlist the help of students
One of the best ways to find out if your latest social media campaign is cool or “ew, cringe” is to enlist the help of a student intern. As part of a student involvement program in my former district, high school students spend the last few months of the school year out in the field, job shadowing and interning in careers that interest them.
It was fortuitous for me that an extremely bright and affable junior named Gwen asked if she could complete her work-based study in the district’s board office. She circulated through our various departments learning about the key responsibilities of district leadership, but the lure of #SchoolPR is strong (and we’re more fun than the business office). Soon Gwen was spending all her time with me in the communications office.
With Finalsite’s training modules, granular user permissions, and easy-to-use content management system (CMS), Composer, Gwen was publishing news stories and updating pages on the website in no time. She was especially talented at creating content that resonated with our students, like engaging social media stories, using Canva for graphics, and taking candid and authentic photos of her peers.
In Gwen’s work, her authentic voice shined through and served as a bridge to the students both in person and in our digital marketing content. Certainly, the smiles she captured with her lens were much more genuine than the suspicious side-eye I might have caught when infiltrating a gregarious group of teens.
Kim Newell, assistant public relations coordinator at Colonial School District in Pennsylvania worked closely with a student intern who wrote a news story for the website, raising awareness of her school’s Black Cultural Awareness Club and uplifting her experiences on campus. “It was nice to not only highlight her perspective as a high school student but also as a person of color,” said Newell.
Even if your district does not have a work-based study track, you might connect with your high school counseling office or teachers to identify students who are interested in working a few hours a week in exchange for volunteer service hours and a letter of recommendation.
Some communications initiatives that a student intern can support are:
- Content generation, photo acquisition, and digital asset management
- Simple graphic design and creating digital content
- Social media marketing and blog posts
- Community engagement
- Website updates (interns are also great at performing website audits because they’ll tell you what they really think about the user experience!)
Support student activism
Today’s students are thoughtful, engaged citizens capable of forming and expressing their own personal positions on issues that affect them, and they’re eager to participate in our democracy. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, students have the right to speak out, hand out flyers and petitions, and wear expressive clothing in school provided they don’t disrupt the functioning of the school or violate school policies and codes of conduct.
When it comes to organized demonstrations (such as a student walkout), consider collaborating with student organizers to ensure a safe and productive event, and plan on communicating with students, staff, and families ahead of time so everyone is on the same page as far as the district’s attendance policies and plans to conduct the school day with as little disruption as possible.
Holding space for proactive conversations about challenging issues can also go a long way toward building trust with students. Last year, Stillwater Area High School hosted the student-led Voices of Change Student Conference, giving nearly 130 students a safe place to talk about the issues they see in their school.
Cornelius Rish, the district’s cultural liaison who helped support the conference, said, “A lot of our kids have been yearning for the opportunity to be heard. And not only the opportunity to be heard, but knowing there is going to be follow-up action to it. The feedback from kids has been tremendous.”
Let them tell the world who they are
Every day, your students tell you (and everyone else around them) who they are. Are you listening? These districts are not only listening to students but providing opportunities for self-expression.
Jackson County Public Schools in Sylva, North Carolina offers a “Meet Our Students” feature on its website to provide snapshots of a wide range of students in the district. First-person student testimonials also provide credibility as prospective families search to uncover authentic, transparent student experiences.
Student news, stories, and profiles
Rockford Public Schools in Rockford, Illinois created a community hub called The 205 VIBE to share the amazing things happening in its district. The 205 VIBE publishes firsthand stories from students (along with district staff and community members who support RPS 205) using a variety of media such as Finalsite Posts for blogs, which can be filtered by interest and topic.
Granada Hills Charter also uses Posts to spotlight the unique experiences of their brave, bold, and brilliant students in a feature on their homepage called “Our Stories.” As a parent of a rising sophomore, I went straight to Angela’s story, “Juggling More Than You Can Handle? This Sophomore is an Expert Juggler!”
Some schools, like Palo Alto High School, feature digital student publications on their website in an effort to amplify the student perspective and reach readers far and wide. Sharing student work on the district website also gives career-minded future journalists, photographers, and artists valuable portfolio material as they explore potential pathways.
Social media takeovers
One of the best ways to let your students tell the world who they are is a well-planned social media takeover. Engagement soars when a student takes the wheel for a few hours, putting student life at center stage and expressing themselves with their own content to an audience of their peers.
Check out this fantastic Instagram story created by Parker, the student I trusted to document Clarkston High School’s graduation in 2021. He even managed to promote the district’s graduation live-streamed video and take a photo on stage with the principal, which of course, was pre-approved.
The student experience drives so much of what we do, and more importantly, why we do it. By giving students appropriate platforms to voice important ideas, opinions, and self-expression, you can help demonstrate your district’s commitment to providing a supportive and meaningful education.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mary Ellen Rowe is a Finalsite education sales consultant with more than 15 years’ experience directing public and private K-12 school communications. She’s passionate about helping #SchoolPR pros brainstorm challenges, engage their communities, and tell their district’s story. Mary Ellen lives in the Detroit suburbs with her husband, three teenagers, and a dog named Pete.