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Community Conversation Recap: Student Voice Edition

This year’s series of Community Conversations continued this month with two designed to include “student voice” in the Board of Education’s ongoing listening sessions. Held separately at Lakota West and Lakota East high schools on Nov. 2 and 3, respectively,  nearly 40 total students had the opportunity to speak freely about their experiences and insights for future changes. 

The community conversation program began during the 2012-2013 school year in an effort for members of the Board of Education to listen to the ideas, thoughts and opinions of residents on important school issues. Led by a third-party facilitator, each conversation begins with small group discussions that lead to a larger one with the entire group of attendees.

Each student conversation kicked off with a brief introduction from each school’s principal before Board President Lynda O’Connor and board member Kelley Casper chimed in with similar sentiments. “We talk about the importance of student voice and this is a tangible example of that,” said West Principal Ben Brown. “We want you to share your honest opinions and perspectives so that we can use that information for the greater good.”

The Lakota Experience in One Word

The first challenge issued by Jeff Stec, the program’s facilitator, was for each student to offer up a single word to describe their high school experience. That list included everything from a roller coaster, spontaneous, unorganized and complicated to challenging, interesting, well-rounded and impactful.

When Stec asked the group to reflect on the words they’d heard, students shared these perspectives: 

  • Everyone has had a different experience.
  • A lot of the words can be construed as positive or negative. 
  • Although it may be different from one person to the next, everyone experiences some level of challenge with high school. 
  • There’s multiple layers to school. It’s more than coming to school and getting your work done. Teenagers live their life around school, so their experience is a reflection of a lot of factors. 
  • If COVID never happened, a lot of words wouldn’t have been said. 
  • A lot of the words can be attributed to the fact that this group is a product of COVID, meaning that their high school experience lacked a solid foundation and that they missed a lot of the traditional experiences early on.
  • Because of COVID, it’s difficult to even know what we achieved because the circumstances were so wild and the standards and expectations have been different every year and compared to previous classes.

The Impact of COVID

At Lakota East, the conversation veered to students’ personal impact from changes brought on by COVID, through which the following thoughts were shared: 

  • The daily schedule has been a moving target every year since COVID, making it difficult to predict and prepare for. 
  • In many instances, teachers tried to push past the fourth quarter of the 2019-2020 school year. They moved on as though it never happened, making it difficult for kids who never fully grasped some concepts or fell behind socially and mentally. 
  • For some, they went from being in middle school to high school so abruptly. The teachers didn’t seem to understand that it was difficult for the students, too, to transition back into the building after so much freedom when learning from home. 
  • When back in the building, it also made it difficult that we were constantly getting switched between in-person and online because of quarantine requirements.
  • The social disconnect during that fourth quarter was a big issue. We went straight from face-to-face to online.
  • Several expressed anxiety about exams because this is the first time they are having to take them as a high school student. (They were discontinued during school years marked by COVID protocols.) 

At Lakota West, the conversation surrounding COVID moved toward student takeaways from learning virtually - both during fourth quarter of the 2019-2020 school year and subsequently when forced into quarantine. 

  • One student said that’s how he learned that he loved virtual learning. He liked doing it at his own pace, which is what led to him taking a virtual CCP course. 
  • It was difficult to communicate with teachers via email, which in some cases, was the only option in the absence of office hours, when working outside of regular school hours or even during the school day when in quarantine. 
  • Several students liked making connections with teachers online, especially when they offered office hours to meet. They liked the flexibility of meeting with teachers to get real-time help, as needed.
  • One student who attended a different school liked the hybrid model. He mentioned needing a transition when switching abruptly from remote to in-person. Going from such a flexible format to a more rigid one was stressful. 
  • Using the same techniques virtually as in person doesn’t work. With foreign languages, for example, this was especially difficult.

Paint a Picture: The Future of Education

With both groups, Stec then asked students to share with their small groups a story about a time when education worked for them. To take it a step further, he asked students to connect their stories to what the future generation of students needs in their educational experiences. 

The following thoughts were shared when brought back together: 

Class Structure & Content

  • More opportunities for interaction and sharing of perspectives during class. Less lecture and more dialogue. We need to practice speaking earlier in our high school career. One student pointed out that this also strengthens empathy and might contribute to less polarization in our society.
  • More freedom and student choice when it comes to the learning environment (i.e. flexible seating options).zAn emphasis on getting to know how each student learns and adjusting structure of class to respond to those preferences.
  • Less demand on students outside of class. Seven classes assigning homework adds up and takes a toll on mental health. 
  • Smaller classes to help drive relationships. This doesn’t have to be the case for every single class.
  • More black history integrated into the curriculum beyond Black History Month and just Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example. The same could be said for all racial groups and ethnicities. The student who brought this up read a letter from her sixth grade sister sharing many of the same sentiments. 
  • More opportunities to educate themselves on issues that matter to them. 
  • More content connecting back to current events in our world. 
  • American History offered as an option earlier than sophomore year.
  • More online options for students who aren’t as social and struggle in traditional classroom environments. (Lakota Central was brought up, so group agreed that more about this needs to be communicated.) 
  • More electives to help balance out core classes. 
  • More freedom to work at your own pace and gain a sense of self-responsibility. 
  • More “pencil and paper” work to balance out use of technology.

Schedule

  • Students want more flexibility and to be empowered to take ownership of their individual needs.
  • A lot of discussion surrounded the NEXUS bell, described by one student as a time when “you sit in the cafeteria and do nothing.” The group described the biggest fault of the concept is that on any given day, there’s one teacher who has to help with multiple subjects outside of their area of expertise. They acknowledged that it was slightly better with this year’s changes. 
  • Students miss the traditional XH bell, which worked because all teachers were free and you could visit the class where you were struggling. With only 30 minutes twice a week now, the alternative for getting help is to get to school early or stay late.
  • Students resoundingly requested to return to a zero bell schedule for flexibility, and to not be forced to take seven bells. They would prefer to use their NEXUS time to go home and do work when convenient for them and not be forced to be in a set environment at a set time.
  • No blocked classes - too long and need shorter classes to keep attention. 
  • One student suggested fewer classes each semester with longer bell times or alternatively, different schedules each day. Both would help with breaking down monotony and spacing out course workloads. 

Communication

  • Significant discussion about the need for more communication (and advanced communication) about changes that directly impact them and the reason for the changes. 
  • There was a suggestion to change the format of announcements to be delivered at a time when ALL students are still present and delivered by that bell’s teacher, rather than over the loudspeaker, giving them an opportunity to ask questions. 
  • More communication about options like CCP and AP that set students up for their future. 
  • Communication among teachers to coordinate test timing. One student suggested each core subject having an assigned weekday for tests to avoid excessive overlap. 

Teachers & Staff

  • Need to be confident ALL teachers are knowledgeable about their subject matter and even more importantly, that they care about what they are doing. 
  • Need teachers who want to build a relationship with their students - who are more extroverted and willing to create a connection.
  • Staff diversity rate should match the student population. “We need someone who is like us and understands us.”

Beyond the Classroom

  • More assemblies or “special” programs, like field days, field trips or book fairs like in elementary school for example, to break up monotony of daily schedule and increase engagement. “We’re still kids and we need those things to look forward to,” noted one student.
  • One student offered up the idea to assign each student one teacher they can lean on as a mentor to help with academics and life in general. It was noted that this would help tremendously with mental health.
  • Better, and larger, lunch options. 
  • Things like bathroom passes feel like micromanagement and a “one size fits all” solution. The larger student body shouldn’t have to pay for a few students’ poor judgments. 
  • The group is craving deeper connections with their peers and more opportunities to grow their peer-to-peer relationships. 
  • Need some form of a shadowing program to help new students more seamlessly transition into school.
  • More mental health resources at school, especially if you don’t have that trusted teacher. More education about what resources do exist. 
  • An opportunity to educate students on how to interact with special education students. 

Facilities Planning

In relation to the Board’s ongoing efforts to complete a Master Facilities Plan for the district, both groups were also asked to reflect on what changes they would like to see with physical attributes of their school. Their responses included the following: 

  • More color to encourage innovation (significantly more energy around this with East students.) One student suggested an immediate improvement would be letting clubs paint murals.
  • No more fluorescent lights. 
  • Improved Wifi connectivity. 
  • More variety of furniture beyond traditional sitting desks to change up shape and feel of classrooms.
  • In-classroom chargers for your devices.
  • More moderated temperatures; New additions hit extremes. 
  • A swimming pool for Lakota students.
  • Better and bigger bathrooms; lines are long during class changes.
  • Quiet study spaces for independent work. 
  • Parking lots with more entrances and exits and more safety precautions. 
  • More windows for natural light.
  • Locker customization. One student offered up the idea to let students paint their own locker doors and keep the same one for the entirety of their high school career.
  • Increased outdoor learning spaces and more universal use of them.
  • More books in the library (Hub).

With both groups, there was somewhat of a divide regarding the continuation of freshman campuses versus moving to a 9-12 model. Feedback on this topic was definitely more prominent with the West group and included: 

  • Communication is horrendous when freshman are in different schools. You feel disconnected. 
  • “I like getting acclimated to your own class before dealing with upperclassmen. That could have been overwhelming. It was a good growth year. It was good to meet everybody first. I felt a little more prepared coming to main campus.”
  • Collaboration across campuses is difficult because of dramatic scheduling differences, especially with after-school activities. If they remain separate, keep the start times the same.
  • If separate, coordinate events (i.e. spirit week)
  • If combining grades 9-12, give the freshman class its own space for social interaction and to help build community. 
  • Busing between campuses for freshman to take main campus classes is a pain, especially at West.
  • “From a maturity standpoint, freshmen being around upperclassmen definitely helps.” This student encouraged the district to consider a freshman/senior mentor program. Another chimed in with, “It’s good to see seniors lead too.”
  • “You don’t feel the transition to high school when you’re on an island at the freshman campus.” This student indicated that seeing the upperclassman experience, including college expectations, earlier is a positive. One student noted that teachers teach differently and “you have to go through that awkward phase twice.”
  • With regard to the yearbook, one student noted that the freshman year oftentimes gets overlooked and not captured like grades 10-12. 

Final Headlines

  • Lakota West students had enough remaining time to each offer up a headline that conveys what the future of education should look like. Here is what was shared: 
  • Having a mentor and making connections is very beneficial. 
  • At the end of day, without relationships, students don’t want to learn.
  • Flexibility and power over educational experience. 
  • Making classes more interactive. More opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction. 
  • Keeping grades 9-12 together for so many reasons. 
  • Better communication with students. 
  • Dedicated time each week for everyone to come together.
  • Bigger college fairs to see wider variety of what’s out there. 
  • Sit down with your counselor to chart your path and hear options. 
  • Having a peer mentor as a new student.
  • More notice about scheduling changes. 
  • More classes or programs that function like and are structured like Cyber Academy & INCubatorEDU. 
  • Teacher motivation, especially since COVID. 
  • Club Fair to see all the options available and a way to test out which ones you want to try. 
  • More consistency between East and West in terms of opportunities. 
  • More support and communication for CCP alternative paths.


The meetings concluded with a few reflections from the board members who were present. 

“This has been a really great discussion,” O’Connor said. “We appreciate how direct and upfront you’ve been with us.”

“We get from you what others are afraid to say and we appreciate your honesty,” Casper added. 

Learn more about Lakota’s Community Conversations program.  

  • Community Conversations
  • School Board