Alabama’s students: Include us in important education decisions
By: The A+ Student VOICES Team, published in al.com
Students’ perspectives should be heard when making important decisions about our daily lives - especially when those decisions affect our education.
We are the A+ Student VOICES Team, a student advocacy group of Alabama high school students from different districts across the state. Founded in 2018 by A+ Education Partnership and VOICES for Alabama’s Children, we work to ensure our voices are heard in rooms where important decisions are made. Previously, we’ve gone to D.C. to speak to a national conference on citizenship, met with State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey, and participated in local advocacy to ensure AP classes stay in one of our members’ schools. Currently, our main focus is creating an official student advisory council for the State Board of Education.
This year, in light of COVID-19, we developed a statewide student survey to gather information about how Alabama students are doing, specifically with COVID-19, mental health, and how they feel their voices are heard at school. We had 169 respondents from over 25 different schools,representing a wide variety of perspectives. Here’s what we learned:
Our government and school leaders are attempting to address students’ rapidly declining mental health. However, the opinions of the students themselves are often not included in the decision-making process.
Our survey results were clear: our schools’ discussions on mental health are either insufficient or nonexistent.
55.6% of students surveyed said that their school does not address mental health or make their mental health a priority. Not only that, but 56.8% of students do not feel comfortable talking to a school counselor.
Students offered many comments like, “school is the biggest negative contributor to my mental health.” One comment even stated that, “school almost drove me to kill myself.”
Student mental health is an issue for many students, and the solutions to these issues are not always easy. It’s important that our leaders continue to find creative ways to address students’ needs.
Covid-19 and School
Our statewide survey of students revealed other important data:
70.8% of students surveyed noticed that their teachers have appeared more stressed due to the pandemic and, in response, have felt more stressed themselves.
68.1% of students claimed that they learned more material with in-person learning even though 59.9% of students expressed that they have more work to accomplish with online schooling.
With 59.5% of our survey respondents’ learning negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that we have a lot of work to do together.
The Necessity For A Student Advocacy Group
The need for student concerns to be heard and understood is vital during COVID-19 and beyond. Additionally, students have continued to fight deteriorating mental health within schools, and this issue is not helped by the fact that many of us don’t feel heard or represented within our schools. Establishing student boards at the state level and in local schools that talk directly with decision-makers would help us to identify student issues and address them collaboratively.
The responsibility of voicing student perspectives is too often delegated to a form of elected student government (SGA) within schools. However, less than a quarter of students surveyed said that they felt represented by this body within their own schools.
Over 75% of our respondents said an alternative student group outside of SGA was necessary to represent students and offer solutions to issues in schools.
Additionally, 80% would want to be or would consider being a part of an alternative student group.
This group would allow students to give more input into important decisions, including things like school policies, lesson plans, the availability of school counselors and other mental health resources, virtual and in-person learning, and other important student needs. This input could also assist in halting some of the negative educational impacts of Covid-19 because students would be able to clarify what we have and have not learned, giving teachers a baseline for what needs to be covered next year.
As students, we have a level of insight that people who have never experienced school during a pandemic, national school shootings, or in this age of technology could ever have. It is time to start not only listening to us, but also welcoming us to the table. We know what we need. Only when students are truly heard will there ever be real change.
This op-ed was written by the A+ Student VOICES Team. Our members: McKinley Beavers (Blount County), Tatum Courington (Washington County), Kistrall Crusoe (Montgomery County), Brianna Davis (Coffee County), Jazmin Faulkner (Elmore County), Mia Johnston (Montgomery County), Kaitlyn Knowles (Blount County), Morgan McKinney (Etowah County), Caileigh Moose (Jefferson County), Olivia Patterson (Morgan County), Jack Roberts (Jefferson County)