Bringing Youth on-Board: Lessons Learned from the Boston Student Advisory Council

By the BELE Network

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This is part two in a series that features the fearless young people, especially Black and Brown youth, who are reimagining schools as inclusive communities and advocating for equitable, anti-racist systems. During this period of dual crises, Covid-19 and systemic racism, it’s more important than ever to listen to our young people and actively partner with them to build truly equitable learning environments.

For this piece, we sat down with Khymani James, a student representative on the Boston Student Advisory Council, and the 2020–2021 student representative on the Boston School Committee, and Rachel Gunther, Associate Director of Youth on Board.

The education system might have been built for students, but because of factors like adultism or fear of change, adults have too often shut out the valuable voices and perspectives of students when making decisions that impact them. The BELE Framework holds that giving young people a say in what and how they learn is a prerequisite for culturally affirming and responsive classrooms.

Thankfully, this has begun to change over the past decade. More and more districts are seeking out youth perspectives and actively soliciting their feedback.

Among them, Boston Public Schools (BPS) is a model for what this two-way dialogue with students can look like and when students are intentionally integrated into decision making structures. In 2002, Youth on Board began working with the Boston School Committee to build out the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) and help connect the Committee with the students it serves.

Through a unique inside-outside partnership withYouth on Board, an organization that specializes in centering young people’s voices in decisions that affect their lives, BSAC began to work with BPS on implementing student-centric policies. To date, BSAC has developed and helped drive the passage of over 35 district-wide policies, including the Student to Teacher Constructive Feedback Policy, which allowed students to give teachers feedback on strengths and weaknesses through a Constructive Feedback Form developed by BSAC. Although it was originally unique to Boston, this initiative was adopted into law in Massachusetts and has gained support nationally after joint advocacy efforts by Youth on Board and BSAC. In addition, BSAC also provides ongoing trainings on adultism for school and district administrators, staff, teachers union members, coalition members, and the BPS school committee, so they can understand how their biases against youth might prevent them from engaging and partnering with youth in an impactful way.

This open channel of communication has been critical to designing BPS’ response to Covid-19 equitably. Currently, BPS is proposing hybrid days for students for the fall school year with an option to opt out in favor of a fully remote learning experience. However, students are not a monolith, and listening to diverse and numerous student voices to identify different needs is a critical part of designing an equitable response. Through their conversations with students, BPS found that many families lacked adequate access to wifi for remote learning. Student advocacy resulted in a partnership between BPS, the City of Boston, and Xfinity to provide wifi hotspots to those in need.

But it’s important to keep in mind that youth voice is not the same as youth power. Khymani and his counterparts across the country, in districts like the Los Angeles Unified School District, are not given the opportunity to cast actual votes in school board or committee decisions. Even as we begin normalizing having students at the table, we must also start thinking of them as not just advisors, but co-conspirators. Together, Youth on Board and BSAC have been working to grant student representatives voting power for over 10 years, and their hard work and persistence brings them closer to their goal than ever before.

Until that day, the Boston Student Advisory Council and Youth on Board will continue to work in partnership with Boston Public Schools to create more equitable learning environments, while advocating for student voting powers that may act as a model for districts everywhere

For more information on BSAC’s myriad of achievements since 2003, visit this page. Additionally, Youth on Board and BSAC have created a first-of-its-kind app outlining critical information about student rights. This app has been replicated by other organizations, and has been downloaded over 22,000 times. Learn more at http://www.bostonstudentrights.org/

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We are committed to creating learning environments that equitably support every student — especially students of color and low-income students. belenetwork.org

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