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To Make Schools Inclusive, Listen to Students

by Staff

Students want to attend inclusive schools where their input is heard and transformed into action that benefits all students, as well as educators.

That was the key message behind the third annual virtual Students for Equitable Education Summit, organized by the education nonprofit Digital Promise, held on March 4. Forty-four students from 16 high schools in seven districts in New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, and California came together to share advice for both educators and fellow students across seven sessions on how to make schools culturally inclusive and why that matters.

Sessions focused on how students can ask teachers to recognize microaggressions in the classroom and put a stop to them, and advice on how teachers can create welcoming and affirming spaces for LGBTQ students.

Such ideals run counter to several state laws restricting how teachers can teach about topics of race and gender, and general efforts by conservative lawmakers to restrict instruction on the academic concept of critical race theory, which has been conflated with pedagogies such as culturally responsive teaching.

But this is why students, such as Madison Asprer, 16, who attends school in the Rowland Unified School District in Los Angeles County, wanted their voices to be heard at the summit.

“In some states, governors limit our education by banning diverse books and AP classes on African-American studies. Students and educators need to collaborate to resist these changes,” Asprer said. “Defying these changes can happen through protests, clubs, student councils, and talking to local school boards.

We must stay resilient and show them that we are not just little kids but future generations of change and leaders and will not accept an education that is less than what we deserve.”

Students want inclusive history

In her summit presentation, Asprer discussed how important it is for teachers to avoid watering down history.

As a student in a dual enrollment class covering race and ethnicity, she has learned about different power structures and how institutional racism has been embedded into some laws and regulations. But Asprer hopes those kinds of conversations could extend beyond such a class.

“I think that in our history of classes, we just talk about general ideas, but we never go into depth about it. And I think that’s why some people have struggled to broaden their perspectives and viewpoints, because it’s only been taught from this one perspective,” Asprer said.

She wants teachers to go beyond what academic standards and certain curricula emphasize and expand their history classes into discussions of both the hardships marginalized communities have faced but also resistance efforts to these hardships. And that includes discussing current events.

“Our generation is so much more socially aware of what is going on in the world. And I think that’s important to bring in a school environment too,” she said.

Students face economic hurdles to inclusion

But building inclusive school environments is not limited to what is taught and how it’s taught.

Leilani Ngo, 17, also a student in Rowland Unified, spoke at the summit about how costs associated with extracurricular activities including sports with transportation and equipment fees can limit students’ abilities to explore their interests. That dynamic can create tensions between students when it’s clear who can afford to participate and who cannot.

“These extracurriculars, as much as they seem like an extra thing to do in students’ free time, it can help them in many more pathways in their future, it can help them figure out what they actually want to do,” Ngo said.

“Teachers always emphasize ‘what do you want to be in the future?’ So, if you’re not going to give us this opportunity, might as well not even ask students,” she added.

Even something like paying for school pictures can make some students feel excluded from activities their peers may have an easier time experiencing, she said.

As she advocated for more free activities and events for all students, Ngo also highlighted how schools can do a better job of expanding how they recognize students. For instance, students can be honored for contributions they made to campus such as helping clean up after events or an accomplishment tied to a student club.

Ultimately, both Ngo and Asprer agreed that schools miss out when they don’t actively seek out or take ideas and feedback from students on what can be done to make schools more inclusive.

“School districts have the number one goal of making it comfortable for the students,” Ngo said. “How do they really know how to make it comfortable without asking them?”

“We’re a new generation, we know what is needed and what is not needed.”

And the payoff from giving space to student input can be big.

Tricia Roddy, director of communications for Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a mentor for the summit, said her district had an instance where students notified leadership that a school building where students would only come for a half day didn’t offer breakfast or lunch.

“We were able to implement that,” Roddy said “and if the students hadn’t brought that to the administration’s viewpoint, we probably would not have known that it was an issue.”

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