By Jennifer Wohlleb
Never underestimate the passion and compassion of high school students. That was the lesson former Kenton County Schools Superintendent Tim Hanner learned years ago when he asked his students, “What would it take for all students in our high schools to be successful and what can you, as students, do to impact that success?”
The students immediately took the reins, which led to greater involvement in the schools, then to districtwide service learning and now to the Northern Kentucky Youth Advisory Board.
“When you empower students and give them an opportunity, don’t let anyone tell you that high school students don’t care; it’s the opposite ... they don’t get the opportunity,” said Hanner, who is now retired but is working with the nonprofit organization Childrens, Inc. to lead the youth advisory board.
Students from 20 high schools in 14 northern Kentucky school districts are participating in the group, which meets once a month. There, students share ideas, lessons learned from the service learning projects they are creating in their own districts, and begin to answer an expanded version of Hanner’s questions: “What would it take for all students from northern Kentucky to be successful and what can you, as students, do to impact that success?”
To get the group started, Hanner invited every district in the region to participate. Hanner met with the superintendent and principal in each district that accepted and took them through the steps that had been so successful in Kenton County, where his students had created Hanner’s Heroes and Shining Star Mentors, literacy and mentoring programs that pair high school and elementary students (see sidebar for more information).
“I find out what kind of (service learning) programs they already have,” he said. “In some districts this is new, but you have to have kids leading this. The schools choose ‘magnet’ students, usually four, to get started. These are not necessarily your A students, but the ones other students respect. Then I sit with those students and find out what are the needs in their schools.”
Increasing school pride and participation in school activities are the projects in some districts. At Walton-Verona Independent, Hanner said students identified bullying as an important issue and are working regularly with a class of fifth-graders.
Students at Grant County High School identified school culture as their area of concern and the target of a service learning project.
“One of the needs we identified in our school was student-teacher relationships,” said senior Kaira McKinnon. “There actually were three more needs we identified, including student involvement and pride in one’s school, but when we actually looked at it we realized that you can’t affect any of those without affecting student-teacher relationships. If a student feels like they have someone they can actually connect to in the school system, then they’re going to feel more obligated to be involved and have someone they almost feel like they have something to prove to.”
The four students each identified two teachers to survey.
“One of the questions was, do you feel like you’ve created a positive learning environment in your classroom, (as well as) different questions that would affect how students view the teacher and how the teacher viewed the students in their classroom,” said sophomore Hannah Colson. “We looked over their surveys and then we each sat down with the teacher we needed to improve our relationship with and had a one-on-one conference with them. We didn’t put it in a negative way, we didn’t tell them that we thought they needed to improve their relationship skills, we just asked them what they needed to help make our classroom more productive.
“My teacher actually sat back in her chair and said, ‘Wow, I really love that.’ My teacher shared what she thought the classroom situation was like in our class right now. I completely heard her side of it; I see the student perspective every day.”
McKinnon said her teacher then turned the table and asked her ‘What do you think I can do?’
“So right there we had a gate we opened for us to have a student voice,” McKinnon said.
Student suggestions for improving the classroom environment ranged from the simple – not using red pens to grade papers – to the complex – allowing more cooperative learning during class time.
“Let’s do something a little different with that so we can have a different learning style so we can meet the different needs of students,” McKinnon said.
The students also understand their teachers better.
“We understand that in a normal classroom setting, it’s 30 students to one teacher,” McKinnon said. “We can all do something a little different on our part, respect the teacher more, behave better and maybe the teacher will see herself differently and change a little, too and alter her teaching style to accommodate our learning styles. Honestly, it changed both sides and worked really well.”
Grant County High School Principal Claudette Herald said the key to making this work is picking the right students and trusting them to take the lead.
“We have to listen to our students, we have to ask them, we need their input daily,” she said. “It’s been refreshing.”
Herald recommended starting with upper-level students who are going to put the time and effort into it and who want to see a positive change in their high school.
“Then, they will select other students that they can pull along,” she said. “Our group has done that.”
At the monthly youth advisory board meetings, several schools report the progress of their service learning project to the larger group.
“It’s their meeting,” Hanner said, describing how he asks some simple questions and steps back as they take control.
“I asked what’s the best way we can communicate,” he said. “One of the kids said,’ I’ll create a Facebook page.’ That made me nervous but they did it and it’s a closed page and it’s taken off. They’re talking to each other, sharing challenges.”
Hanner said he would like to see groups like this take off around the state. In the meantime, he has a vision for northern Kentucky.
“What I see coming out of this in the future is these schools picking one cause and working toward it together and tapping each other on the shoulder and leading it back in their home schools,” he said. “I think we can have these all over the state; I think we should. Kids are starving for this, are starving for these kinds of opportunities.”
— For more information about this program contact Hanner or Mary Kay Connolly, director of service learning with Children, Inc.