Student Voice and Community Engagement in Lowell Public Schools A case study by Paul Barnwell

On an early March morning in a high-ceilinged conference room at sprawling Lowell High School, in Lowell, Massachusetts, juniors Nathan Gere and Jaeda Turner communicate clearly and enthusiastically about their involvement with the Student Voice Group. Both Gere and Turner have been involved since the project's inception in 2017, and they’ve learned a thing or two about advocacy and spurring change. “You have to set reasonable goals and break them down into small steps that you can take little by little. . . you have to think about the process you're gonna take along the way,” Gere says.

Process. Community. Change. Voice.

Gere, Turner, and other members of the Student Voice Group are participants in just one of many community engagement initiatives established thanks to a three-year, Nellie Mae Education Foundation-funded partnership between Lowell Public Schools and Project Learn, which funds and supports cradle-to-career initiatives in the area. The Great Schools Partnership (GSP) played an integral role by providing coaching and technical assistance along the way. And thanks to all these efforts, Lowell’s students and families are now increasingly being heard in Lowell as they lead and advocate for positive change.

Student Voice Group

Lowell High School, with it’s enrollment of over three thousand students, represents a changing community. Lowell is like many formerly mill-dominated cities in New England and has transformed from a largely white, working-class city to a municipality representing a mosaic of cultures. Lowell High School’s demographic profile in 2019-2020 highlights this shift: 12% of students were reported as African American, 30.6% as Asian, 27.5% as Hispanic, 26.7% as white, and 3.2% as other.

In such a diverse and dynamic community, whose voices have power and whose are diminished? And how can the student body provide more input into the decision-making process?

Andi Summers of the Great Schools Partnership and Leslie King of Everyday Democracy provided the bulk of the technical assistance at Lowell High School, assisting with all Student Voice Group project phases, including initial group formation. “Our opening move was to convene a group of students representing a range of demographics and experiences,” Summers says. “We asked them questions like, 'Which students at Lowell High have power?' And, 'Who has a voice in the way things go here and who doesn’t?'”

Summers says it was interesting to learn from students that they didn’t perceive student power inequities as based only on racial and ethnic lines, but also on which types of activities students were involved in, among other factors. Upperclassmen who were athletes, for example, seemed to wield disproportionate influence on the student body and school culture. Summers, King, and Lowell Head of School Marianne Busteed were soon able to convene a group that better represented the student body, which Gere says helped improve the school culture. “It's hard to get 4,000 people to come to a consensus on really anything, and it's important to have [student] representatives to help make decisions in the school system. The Student Voice Group [has been] a great way to bring everyone together and really raise the school spirit.”

After the first Student Voice Group formed in the fall of 2018, its forty members brainstormed and formed subcommittees, focusing on addressing certain issues within the school:

  1. Removing the stigma of mental health issues amongst students
  2. Deepening student understanding of Lowell High School grade point average calculations
  3. Increasing access to water at school lunch and improve food offerings

Along the way, Summers, King, and Project Learn’s Associate Director of Development and Programs Shamir Rivera facilitated leadership training, where students learned about the importance of listening, completed roleplaying to prepare for interactions with decision-makers, and clarified next steps, among other strategies.

According to both Gere and Turner, this guidance was essential. “[Summers] really helped us streamline the whole process because we weren't really entirely sure how to break into committees, how to identify issues and how to prioritize the ones that we wanted to focus on . . . She helped bring a structure to the group and actually kind of give us an idea of what we were doing,” Gere says. In addition, Turner says she has come to appreciate the challenges organizations face while trying to enact change. “It made me respect the decision-makers here because students often see the negative side of things and complain. But then once you try to do it yourself and you try to go through the process of getting things done, you see that it's not an easy thing to do.”

But over time, members of the Student Voice Group have become more energized than discouraged by the deliberate process of advocacy: In late 2019 and early 2020, Student Voice Group leaders, including Turner, helped to facilitate a series of discussions with Lowell School District leaders on issues relating to equity. Their were and will undoubtedly continue to be heard.

The Citywide Family Council (CFC)

Like with the Student Voice Group, the Great Schools Partnership supported processes to help bring more diverse perspectives to other decision-making processes—this time, for community members, parents, and families invested in Lowell Public Schools.

Even though Lowell Public Schools traditionally received some input from parents, the process wasn’t conducive to elevate voices in a changing community. As a result, Summers and a team of advocates, which included Lowell’s former Interim Superintendent Jeanine Durkin and Director of the Family Resource Center Rebecca Duda, reviewed the bylaws of the existing parent council. “[We said] let's radically review the bylaws to remove barriers to participation. Let's change the name to the Family Council to reflect the fact that we know that we have many nontraditional families involved in our schools,” Summers says.

The CFC launch meeting occurred in the fall of 2018, and roughly 200 community members, parents, business, and nonprofit leaders convened at the Lowell Senior Center. At the end of the event, “[Summers] said the last thing you need to do before you let people leave the room is ask them if they want to learn more about what it means to be leaders,” Rivera recalls. Roughly ten parents and community members stayed, and they would end up becoming the CFC’s core leadership.

Rivera says she, Summers, and King would initially come up with CFC meeting agendas as the group worked to determine its mission and direction. They helped members identify and practice facilitation skills, timekeeping, taking notes, and other aspects of organizing. Over time, the CFC identified priority areas that needed change:

  1. School district communications
  2. The creation of an Lowell Public Schools organizational chart
  3. Diversity in hiring
  4. A possible “parent university”
  5. Improving student enrollment processes

CFC members—just like the student members of the Student Voice Group—are continuing to learn how to advocate, organize, and spur positive change. And they are also beginning to grow external support. For example, Lowell School Committee Member Jackie Doherty passed a motion in 2019 to allow the CFC an annual presentation with the full committee, at a minimum.

Fast forward to 2020: The CFC operates independently from grant and technical support, but have nonetheless made great strides in disseminating information to parents. Organizer Beth Tripathi, who has two children in the Lowell system, says the group has made over 3000 contacts in-person or over social media, helping to answer questions about school registration, report cards, and how to effectively communicate with teachers, among other queries.

Despite some successes, there’s still a ways to go as far as outreach is concerned, says Daroth Yann, who was part of the orginal leadership group and now serves as Assistant Human Resources Director for Lowell Public Schools. “I’m happy [the CFC] exists, even if it’s not yet functioning to its fullest potential . . . The grant helped to build a bridge for us to continue to build the group’s culture and become more well-known in the community.”

Moving Forward

Change doesn’t simply occur. When a new school district policy or city ordinance is formed—either to the benefit or chagrin of community members—there’s a process that has occurred behind the scenes. And unfortunately, voices are often marginalized. But in Lowell, under the leadership of new Superintendent Joel Boyd, an increasingly diverse group of stakeholders is now invited to speak up for themselves while learning to to turn ideas into action. The Student Voice Team and Citywide Family Council—coupled with the district’s new Office of Equity and Engagement led by Latifah Phillips—will surely continue to fuel a wide range of community advocacy in Lowell.

Equitable community engagement leads to student success. Let the Great Schools Partnership help you make it happen in your district or school.


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