How students in Chicago Public Schools make their voices heard
Before Chicago Public Schools steeped itself in student voice, educators there realized their young learners had far more influence on their lives outside the classroom.
It was the students themselves who began advocating for bigger roles in the wide range of decisions made in their school buildings, says Cristina Salgado, the district’s senior student voice specialist.
As a result, the district launched student voice committees at 16 high schools about six years ago. There are now almost 200 of the committees spanning high school to the elementary level, Salgado says.
The committees have tackled issues ranging from school-uniforms to not having mirrors or enough toilet paper in bathrooms.
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“It wasn’t that students hated uniforms but buying khaki pants was an extra expense and the pants got dirty and some students didn’t have washing machines,” Salgado says. “The adults began to understand it wasn’t just kids complaining.”
Giving all students voice
Educators recruiting for the committees seek out more than just students who are naturally inclined to participate in school activities, she says.
“It’s not enough to go to teachers and ask them to nominate someone because what ends up happening is the ‘best’ students get nominated,” Salgado says. “We have to do our due diligence to make sure we are creating committees that are representative of all students.”
That means seeking out quiet students and those who have fallen behind academically or who may be seen as troublemakers.
Assembling diverse committees is one reason the district offers “Student Voice 101” training to help the adult advisors who work with the committees understand how to empower young people and encourage students to get involved in various forms of activism.
“Some students may be the ones who show up to protests, others are the types who work at nonprofits or are policymakers,” she says.
Outcomes of youth activism
Teaching students as young as fifth grade the process of organizing around a cause, building civic leadership skills and learning how to forge partnerships with adults is as important as what the activism achieves, Salgado says.
“For me, it’s not always about the end product, it’s about what students learn along the way,” she says. “The more they build positive student-adult partnerships, the more we will see change because adults will begin to practice not making rash decisions and pausing to ask what students think about an issue.”
Students involved in the committees have become more active in causes in their communities and have also gotten their classmates involved in local issues, such as the census. These students have also provided feedback on online learning that has taken place during coronavirus closures.
“Our next level of engagement is to invite school leaders to think through the systems and structures they’re creating in their schools that could include and prioritize student voice,” she says.