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Beyond the Board of Education How can the School District of Clayton attain its vision for the profile of a graduate?

Story by Luka Bassnett, Disha Chatterjee, Kaia Mills-Lee, Grace Snelling and Lila Taylor with reporting by Justin Guilak and visuals by Michael Melinger.

CLAYTON'S REALLOCATION OF RESOURCES

The reverberations of the Great Recession, which officially transpired from December 2007 to June 2009, caused the School District of Clayton to make significant cuts and reallocate resources in the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years. Over those two years, the District made a combined $2.57 million budget reduction, “through its Resource Management and Long-Term Financial Planning (LTFP) efforts, which involved input from a committee of District administrators, parents, staff and community members,” according to the School District of Clayton website.

As of 2016, the District spent an average of $18,020.08 per student. In Missouri, the average teacher salary is $48,478. At Clayton, it’s $72,184. In Missouri, the average administrator salary is $88,796. At Clayton, it’s $123,674. In 2016, Clayton used 80.12 percent of its $50,173,814 expenditures on employee salaries and benefits. During the reductions, the District worked to make sure that teachers in the District remained well-compensated, but some staffing reductions were made at that time.

In 2012, three positions were cut at the high school that still come up in faculty conversations today: the positions of academic director, substitute coordinator and department secretary. The question is not merely why; it is whether or not those positions were vital to the function of CHS.

“I was in the District [when the cuts were made], but I was in a different role,” said Clayton Superintendent Sean Doherty. “I know that the main focus of that conversation was to try to make decisions that were going to be farthest away from the classrooms.”

The Board did not consider cutting down on teachers, but other programs and personnel were considered across the District.

“I know that they looked at staff benefits and the health benefits and made some decisions around cost savings, and so some of those systems types of things versus personnel, but I know that they really tried to make decisions that they felt were as far away from the classroom as possible,” said Doherty.

Despite attempting to stray away from staff whose loss would directly affect students, Doherty realizes that any staff can have a relationship with a student, directly influencing that student if let go.

“I also know that our administrative support staff are very integral to our students as well,” said Doherty. “We had to make decisions to cut some of those positions back then, which was difficult because our support staff have important relationships with our students. They’re sometimes the trusted adults for some our students.”

None of the positions lost have since been added back, and administration and the Board are not considering returning those positions if the 2019 tax levy passes. Instead, they are looking towards the future.

“We haven’t added back any of those positions or structures that we cut since that time, so those cuts have carried on. For this current tax levy, we’re not saying, ‘We’re doing the tax levy so we can add back the positions that we had previously,’” said Doherty.

The last tax levy Clayton experienced was in 2003, and the next will be voted upon on April 2, 2019.

According to the School District of Clayton website, “Proposition E is a ballot proposal asking voters within the School District of Clayton to consider an operating tax levy increase of 56 cents and an 8 cent waiver of Proposition C sales tax revenues. The net effect of both measures will provide the District with an additional 64 cents of operating revenue. The additional revenue will be used to maintain and strengthen the District’s academic excellence and fiscal stability by eliminating the gap between revenues and expenses, addressing facility and maintenance needs and rebuilding reserves.”

If Prop. E fails, administration and the Board predict that another wave of expenditure cuts would result in the loss of more staff and personnel. Without the levy, the expenditure and revenue gap would climb to $4.8 million in the 2020 fiscal year.

“The tax levy was voted on by the School Board, and six out of seven members voted to put it on the ballot this April,” said School Board President Kristin Redington. “That’s to give the community the opportunity to pass it. So it’s really inviting the community’s input, what do they value and what do they want for the Clayton schools and their future.”

The tax levy is not just needed to add new positions but to keep up with inflation and other economic challenges.

“The way that school finances work, they’re cyclical in nature,” said Redington. “So you have a certain amount of revenue coming in, and then you have your expenses, and when the revenue first gets voted on by the tax levy, it creates an ability to create a fund balance, and the expenses are maybe a little bit lower than the money that’s coming in. But then eventually, because of inflation, your expenses rise, and the amount of money that we get doesn’t change. So eventually the expenses are going to take over the amount coming in.”

However, the frequency of Clayton’s requests for tax levies is much lower than other school districts.

“Usually a tax levy lasts for three to five years. We had a tax levy in 1988 and in 2003, and now we’re going for one in 2019, so ours are lasting way longer, primarily because of how fiscally prudent the Board has been over these years. We’re super conservative in how we handle our money, we’re super frugal, we very rarely allow for new hires to happen. It’s this constant look at human capital and how you can re-sort it instead of having to add on,” Redington said.

The Board and other administration plan to align the new revenue with the mission statement and goals of the District.

“The current tax levy is going to allow us to maintain that high level of academic excellence that we provide our students—making sure that we’re not having to make any additional cuts. But with our new strategic plan, my hope is that we really ask ourselves if these are the priorities within our strategic plan, how are we aligning our resources to make sure that we’re supporting those priorities?” Doherty said.

"With our new strategic plan, my hope is that we really ask ourselves if these are the priorities within our strategic plan, how are we aligning our resources to make sure that we’re supporting those priorities?" -Sean Doherty, Superintendent

The tax levy, if passed, will be used to maintain Clayton’s current standards as well as add any new positions or programs as needed.

“So if we’re looking at a different approach to learning, or a different position that would support learning in a different way, then our resources should be aligned to that,” said Doherty. “Right now the plan is not to add back any of the cuts we’ve made in 2012-13. We want to make sure that we’re moving forward and that our resources are aligned with our goals. That might mean that we have to look at positions differently, or innovative ideas or different opportunities for students that we haven’t had in the past.”

Despite Doherty’s forward-thinking approach, many CHS teachers have felt the loss of the cut positions. While a student may not realize these losses, they may be affecting the student indirectly.

Department chair and history teacher Josh Meyers demonstrated how the loss of department secretaries affected him.

“I think what ultimately happened was not so much an increased burden on the department chair, but an increased burden, a small one, on the workload of everyone. The policies on paper seem super reasonable unless you’re a teacher who’s constantly innovating and thinking on the fly and changing stuff on the fly. Those kinds of quick decisions and changes to lessons happen all the time.”

The lack of a staff member ready to make copies and do other secretarial work for each department resulted in this loss. If a teacher wants to add to their lesson, they aren’t able to do so in the same way. Currently, there is a certain amount of notice required for copies, preventing teachers from changing lessons, worksheets, homework and tests.

“Our teachers are so professional and so dedicated that the [effect on students] probably didn’t change that much. It’s small tiny little things that the teachers absorb that the kids would never necessarily know or experience that is the kind of cumulative of those cuts. This has become our new normal and this is how we operate.”

Now, the three staff members in Room 8 run the administrative duties that the individual department secretaries once held.

“Prior to those cuts, each department had its own departmental assistant. We went from having a department assistant for each department to consolidating them into Room 8 and using them as an office pool rather than departmental assistants, and by doing that it allowed us to reduce by two or three positions at the time,” CHS Principal Dan Gutchewsky said.

The loss of department secretaries resulted in a larger burden on the academic departments than on the counseling department.

“Fortunately, for us in counseling, we didn’t lose administrative support like the rest of the building did. That particular part of it: the administrative assistant, I would just leave it at that we didn’t feel the effect of that as much as the academic departments did,” Counseling Department Chair Carolyn Blair said.

Despite the extra burden placed on the teachers, the School Board continues to promote its student-focused agenda.

“[Lack of department secretaries] is putting more pressure and work on teachers who should be teaching, and that’s challenging,” said Redington. “At the same time, we are very fortunate in Clayton that we spend $20,000 per kid, and many school districts don’t do that, so where do we try to control costs and still try to provide the best education that we can with as many options and opportunities as we can for kids?”

Another significant position lost was the substitute coordinator. Before the cuts, two part-time positions were merged to form one, full-time substitute coordinator.

“Also, at that time, we had a sub coordinator that coordinated the subs in the morning and then filled in if there was a shortage or if something came up during the day,” said Gutchewsky. “The duties of assigning subs in the morning went to one of the administrative assistants in the office. If we run short [on staff] we use the campus supervisors to fill in for periods here and there. But that also allowed us, at the high school, to eliminate another salary position.”

Presently, teachers are left to scramble for substitutes, increasing the burden on the department chairs. Additionally, teachers often give up their planning periods in order to fill in for other, absent teachers.

“If someone has to leave, and I know that I can’t rely on a permanent sub, I just go to someone in the department,” said Meyers. “And this is a really important point, it’s not just department chairs, it’s like we’re asking each other to cover during their prep periods. While everyone is totally willing to do it because we’re good colleagues and we help each other out to whatever degree we can, those are things that we weren’t having to do before. So there’s no question that the amount of periods that people have to cover due to absences or absences that aren’t planned, that’s where a lot of the loss is felt in that position.”

Having that permanent position was especially beneficial for the history department, as the previous substitute coordinator was trained in history specifically and could teach a lesson as opposed to playing a video and handing students a worksheet.

“In terms of a day-to-day impact on the department chair’s life, that was one of the biggest things lost,” said Meyers. “It’s just hard without a permanent person here. When you have a permanent person, you have a relationship with them and they know who you are and what your needs are.”

Other teachers in the building have felt the loss of the sub coordinator, and deem its return crucial.

“I think the sub coordinator position needs to come back. If you have at least one dedicated person who is able to oversee that, it ensures that we have somebody here if something happens,” said CHS teacher and former administrator Marci Pieper. “I just think that the position was something valuable and could come back easily.”

Pieper’s not alone with her opinion. Many teachers miss the convenience and the stability of a permanent position.

“We cover for each other. In some cases that means we’re doing two classes at once. It adds another kind of layer to stress which shouldn’t be a difficult issue,” said CHS art teacher and Art Department Chair Christina Vodicka. “That sub coordinator was really valuable just to have someone in the building who knew teachers and who had the sensibility of schedules and could have that big picture view of who needed to be where and when.”

Self-described fiscally conservative Board of Education member Brad Bernstein does not refer to the personnel losses as budget cuts, but as a “reallocation of resources.” He argues that a substitute coordinator should not be necessary.

The third position eliminated during the budget cuts, and perhaps the most important in terms of teacher voice in administrative and building decisions, was that of the academic director. Previously held by Meyers, the academic director handled accreditation of the district as well as running Leadership Council meetings, which involved building administration and department chairs. The academic director acted as a bridge between teachers and administration and no equivalent position has since been created. A position running district accreditation still exists, and is currently held by CHS science teacher Craig Sucher.

Board members Brad Bernstein and Amy Rubin. Art by Michael Melinger.

“The [academic director] was a stipend position, there was an extra-duty contract with that, and there was release time for the teacher in that role,” said Gutchewsky. “And that was one of those things that kind of forced us to look at how we do our work and who leads different groups. What used to happen was our building leadership team was actually led by a teacher, and then at that time I took that over as principal and I lead that same group now. Part of the work of that is part of our school’s accreditation process which is called Advanced-Ed, and so what we did was rather than having a full-time academic director, depending where we are in the cycle, we provide release time and compensation for a teacher-leader to work with that. That’s more of a cyclical thing, so instead of having a full-time person with release time, the process works on a five-year cycle, and when it’s the year of a site-visit he has a release period.”

Teachers and staff are feeling the loss of the academic director in terms of voice on the administrative team.

“With regard to the academic director, though, as a member of the administrative team, it was interesting, and there was a difference in regards to the voice of the teachers and their presence there and the representation I think that they had,” Blair said. “I would say probably even more than the administrative team, but even leadership council, that was run by the academic director, so there was a more philosophical type of time to talk about what was happening as opposed to an administrative kind of information type of setting.”

The academic director was a go-to person for teachers to express their problems to, and no direct link has been made to fill that gap.

“There was a lot of trust that was built up,” Pieper said. “So when that position was gone, a lot of teachers felt like their voice was gone. Even though they still had department chairs and other people from their departments speaking for them, it was just a different feel.”

The academic director was used as a link between teachers and administration without the added pressure.

“The other piece of that is that sometimes the academic director was a person another teacher could [meet with] to talk about issues that they had and then that person was the representative,” Blair said. “It would be difficult to create a linear example of how, now that this position’s gone, then this issue doesn’t come forth. But you can just sort of extrapolate how that shakes out,” said Blair.

Often teachers have want to approach the administration with various issues, but have held back due to the missing representative.

“Over the years there’s been things coming up here and there that a faculty member wanted to communicate with the administration without going to them personally with feeling singled out of stigmatized,” Vodicka said. “Sometimes you just want someone else to be your advocate, and that position was really valuable for that.”

Meyers witnessed firsthand changes in the academic director position.

“My understanding is that the position evolved over time and that at first, the very first academic director was someone who ran the school accreditation process. By the time I left the role, the academic director position was not only running the North Central Accreditation, but they were sitting as a member on the administrative team,” said Meyers.

When the release periods were taken away from the position, Meyers thought the job would be essentially impossible to complete without the extra time, so he resigned. He had been able to communicate teacher issues and complaints to administration and became a trusted teacher ally.

“What I would do is serve as a liaison between teachers in the building who were upset about something but didn’t necessarily know how to approach the administration. I was like a go-between. So people would come to me and they would express their concerns and I would often present them to the administration anonymously… It was nice because I wasn’t necessarily saying I believe these things, I’m saying I’m hearing these things so it was like a conduit or a go-between between the faculty and the administration.”

Moving forward, the reestablishment of these positions may not be out of the question.

“As a principal, you never want to turn down staffing,” said Gutchewsky “I think [the cuts] did force us to be more efficient and more productive. I think that, probably had you asked me the first year or two after the cuts, there was a fair amount of upset or concern about how we were going to do our work, but I think we’ve kind of settled in and become accustomed to how we do business. Change is always hard. If somebody said, ‘hey we’re gonna bring back the sub coordinator,’ I wouldn’t turn it down, but it wouldn’t be my highest priority in terms of where I was going to spend the money in the building. One of the things that we wanted to do [during the cuts] was not touch classroom teachers, and I think we were pretty effective in doing that without impacting the student experience.”

Maintaining Clayton’s current standards will continue to come first, as well as the well being of Clayton students and their families.

“Priority number one is to be able to maintain everything that we have right now in terms of resources and the services that we provide for students and families,” said Gutchewsky. “If nothing changes, then we won’t be able to continue the level of service that we’re delivering right now because we would not have an influx of funding from the tax levy. We’d have to look at how we balance our budget, and frankly staff accounts for 80 percent of the budget, so it would be impossible to balance the budget without significant staff cuts. So the key there is to maintain.”

STUDENT INVOLVEMENT IN THE SCHOOL BOARD

“The question I would ask is, ‘Who would you go to right now if you have a problem?’ I don’t know. We want to make this an option for people. We want to make it an available resource,” said CHS senior Greg Pierson, one of two student leaders who are looking to install a high school student on the Clayton School Board.

“What we’re trying to do is put a student representative on the board,” Greg said. “That would be a single student that sits at the Board table, interacts with the Board members, and works with the administration. They would have essentially a vote as more of an indicator vote, they can’t officially vote on the board, that’s state law, that there’s seven voting members on a board. But on an issue that the board was voting on, the student would vote on the issue, and the board would take that into consideration.”

Greg, along with sophomore Adam Jaffe, has been coordinating with both administrators and Board members over the course of the year in order to establish a viable and balanced plan to present to the Board on student involvement in the administration. As the son of board member Gary Pierson, he was already familiar with many of the policy-making processes of the Board, and was open to working with member Joe Miller when Miller proposed the idea to him.

Senior Greg Pierson is one of two student leaders looking to install a student onto the school board. Photo by Michael Melinger.

“I have been involved in the School Board a lot; my dad is on the School Board so I know quite a bit about the dynamics of it,” Greg said. “I understood there’s definitely a problem a lot of times with the way the Board operates, as a student. Any student that really watches it would notice that they tend to move pretty slowly, and try to spend a lot of time talking about things and not a lot of time doing things. [Board member Joe Miller] spent a lot of time working with other districts, and has seen that this works, that this is the best practice for other schools, and he asked me to work with the students to make this a reality. We got a ton of support for the idea.”

Although his father’s involvement on the Board provides Greg with an understanding of its day-to-day proceedings, Gary contended that Greg is running the initiative without push from him.

“[Greg and Jaffe] are doing it. And I’m sure there’s probably people that are cynical about it thinking it’s like me behind the scenes, but that’s totally not the case. They’re better at this than I could be,” Gary said.

Similarly to Greg, Jaffe had been interested in the idea of improving the connection between students and Board members for much of his time at Clayton. However, when Doherty asked him for assistance with establishing a board advisory council, he was able to make his ideas a reality.

“I had been at the high school for a year and a half maybe and I saw Dr. Doherty, who was my principal at Captain, so we’re very close, and we were just kind of talking,” Jaffe said. “I’d been thinking for a while that I don’t even know what the Board does. I’m sure that most people in the District, especially in the high school, don’t really know what goes on. I hadn’t been to a meeting, didn’t know what policies were being put in place besides the tax levy—and so, I said to Dr. Doherty, ‘You know, I think there should be an advisory council for the Board.’ We met to discuss it a little while later and he asked me to be the student chair of strategic planning. Then Greg comes up to me and says, ‘I want to do this faster. I want to get this done earlier.’ So, that’s kind of how [Greg and I] came together.”

According to Greg and Jaffe, the core purpose of this initiative is to close the gap of information between students and the administration. Although a student on the Board would not have an official vote that would count towards decisions, their position would be recorded in the minutes of Board meetings and would act as an indicator, for both the other members and the community, of student position on certain policies. However, the selected student’s opinion alone would not be the only factor that would dictate their stance on policies; they would additionally work with a council of eight students to aid their decision-making and provide alternative viewpoints.

“We’re going to create a District advisory council. It will be eight students, two from each grade, that are selected after an application and then a student election. There will be some student input into who should serve each grade level. That group will sort of just support the student that’s on the Board and also be responsible for bringing issues from their respective grades and from around the district that they want to address. Both the student representative to the Board of Education and the advisory council will have applications that every candidate needs to complete. All applications will be reviewed by the administration, so for the student representative to the Board of Education, the administration is going to select an individual. That insulates this from being a popularity contest,” Greg said.

This plan is modeled to fit the needs of Clayton students and administrators, but it also mirrors many of the successful aspects of other student representative programs at schools in the St. Louis area. University City High School has had a similar system for over a decade, and stopped allowing student elections several years ago after realizing that it had negative consequences for the functionality of the Board and student council. This largely impacted Greg and Jaffe’s decision to incorporate administration selection of individuals into their proposal. Another important aspect of the plan is to ensure that the eight students on the advisory council represent the varying experiences and interests of the Clayton student body.

“What Board members have said and what they’ll continue to say is that we don’t want the same kids who do everything [on the advisory council]. We don’t want that typical Clayton student to just have another thing to add to their college resume, which is something that we’ve heard from every single Board member—how do we represent all students? It comes down to this advisory council and making it as diverse as possible,” Jaffe said.

"We don't want that typical Clayton student to just have another thing to add to their college resume, which is something that we've heard from every single board member--how do we represent all students?" -Adam Jaffe

In order to further reach as many students as possible, two students from each grade will be chosen for the advisory council. The representative on the Board will be selected at the end of their sophomore year, serve for the duration of their junior year and become head of the advisory council as a senior in order to encourage continuity of the program.

Interaction with the Board has allowed Greg and Jaffe to form a system that they believe is mutually beneficial for students and administration, and they’ve received positive feedback from the District in this regard.

“Overall we have had overwhelmingly positive support,” Greg said. “That really goes for everyone that we’ve talked to, six of the seven

Board members right now are on board. Brad Bernstein is the only board member who hasn’t expressed explicit support for the idea. He has put forward ideas that he has that would slow down the process and not allow what we’re trying to do to reach its full capacity.”

Concerns that have been expressed in regard to the addition of a student to the Board mainly involve three factors: disruption of Board dynamics, the qualifications of the chosen student and their time commitment. According to Jaffe, the workload and dedication necessary for the position will deter the “typical Clayton student” from assuming it, as it would have to become their main priority, and Board dynamics could be greatly improved through the addition of a student voice.

“The time commitment is a big factor for a lot of these things. So when you’re looking at the students who do everything, that’s our response, we’re not going to get the same students who do everything, because they don’t have time for it. This is a big time commitment,” Jaffe said. “Something we’ve heard from more than one person is, ‘How is this going to affect the dynamics of the board?’ What we want is to force the Board to work more efficiently and consider moving more quickly on issues that students really care about. So having a student sitting there, is going to force their hand on certain issues and require them to move with a little bit more pace on certain things.”

Board member Kristen Redington is also hopeful that a student on the Board will provide it with a greater sense of direction.

“Some people think that having a student on the Board will help keep the Board focused and keep the meetings efficient and effective, and I hope that that continues to be true. We are making decisions, and when we have the information in front of us, we each are bringing our own experience to the table with our own children, and having someone who is currently going through it is really helpful to have at the table. I may have a child in high school right now, but six years ago I didn’t. I wouldn’t have known some of those things. When I first started I didn’t even have a child in middle school, so if there had been a student on the board at that time, they could’ve given some perspective about what it was like in middle school or high school,” Redington said.

For the upcoming school year, Superintendent Sean Doherty is looking to ascertain the most important skills and traits that a Clayton student should acquire through their education and use those qualities to inform everything from budgeting to policy-making. This concept, known as the profile of a graduate, is heavily linked with the expressed need for communication between the student body and administration.

“I’m focusing on the profile of a graduate, because we’re looking at competencies that we want for our students, beyond just measures of test scores,” Doherty said. “We surveyed what the community thinks are the attributes our students need to be successful when they leave Clayton. I’m hoping the profile of the graduate will influence the development for our strategic plan—keeping the end in mind. The profile might help us challenge the givens about teaching and learning, our curriculum and what our classroom spaces look like. I think we need to make sure our strategic plan is responsive to what our students need.”

Sophomore Adam Jaffe is another student involved in installing a student as a member of the Clayton School Board. Photo by Michael Melinger.

Redington additionally views student and community input on essential aspects of the Clayton academic experience as critical for Board members and for district growth.

“Dr. Doherty has proposed this idea of the profile of the graduate, which I’m super excited about, and I’m hoping that students will be a really big part of that and expressing what they want, as well as our community,” Redington said. “What kinds of things do we want all of our students to be able to do when they leave? To me that brings up ideas of being independent, and of being curious, and creative, and socially aware, and kind, empathetic people who are going to give back to the world.”

To Greg and Jaffe, issues of mental wellness and equity in Clayton classrooms are a top priority, as well as being factors that could shape a more well-rounded CHS graduate.

“The phrase I like to use is, ‘I think it’s important to love learning and life together’, and I think Clayton focuses a little too much on the learning. I think it’s something we need to look at, is how do we incorporate that life back in there. My biggest thing is, we need to cut back on homework. When you look at sleep, when you look at stress, it comes from homework, because you’re pushing back that sleep, and it’s delaying your eating habits. People need time to decompress. If you’re assigning 30-45 minutes of homework in every class, it doesn’t work. You don’t have time to play a sport, eat dinner and to go to bed at the right time. We’re already in school for seven and a half hours,” Jaffe said.

Ideally, Greg and Jaffe are hoping to begin initiating change on the Board through an elected student and an accompanying advisory council by this April. Although any alteration of the Board dynamic can be difficult and is likely to cause push-back, the positive experiences that other schools have had with similar models have encouraged the administration to consider it as a viable program. University City High School Superintendent Sharonica Hardin-Bartley contended that the student on University City’s School Board provides critical learning experiences for all involved.

“We are preparing [students] for life,” Hardin said. “And we also try to expose them to those real world experiences, and government and policy has a lot of people. We want our students to understand how to advocate for themselves, in a very positive and productive way, to understand how to use information to advance their ideas, their opinions and their recommendations. We want them to be responsible for their decision making. So why wouldn’t we ask them for their feedback and input regarding how effective we are being at administering policies and putting them into practice where it matters the most?”

At University City, students are nominated for the position based on merit and overall behavior. They are required to have a thorough knowledge of the Board, to attend Board meetings and to connect with fellow students in order to serve as the face of the student body. The current representative, Dominic Bryant, began serving last May and is currently reaching the end of his senior year.

“I was basically walked up to—only seniors can sit on the board, so I was walked up to by another senior that was about to graduate and I guess I got recognized for my leadership throughout the school and things like that,” Bryant said. “Then next thing I know I’m going to Board meetings. There is no paperwork involved or anything, it’s just totally voluntary. I’m the only student that sits on the Board. It’s not really a lot of preparation that goes into it. I just basically keep track of events and then if something comes up on the Board where I can comment or make a proposal I will do so, other than that I can’t really vote to pass things but I do have a say and a voice.”

Despite the fact that Bryant is unable to vote to sway policy decisions, he believes that he has been able to speak for his peers and make an impact on the Board.

Superintendent Sean Doherty, drawn by Michael Melinger.

“I think what’s most important is definitely just the voice: the voice of hearing the student’s side. Just basically letting us be heard so that the teachers, or any staff for that matter, aren’t totally blind to what the students are going through. Take it into consideration and try it out, because hearing the student’s opinion or students’ opinions can really help develop a school and the environment as a whole and even the community itself. When you’re on the Board, you get invited to a lot of things and really get to see the inner sights and it can just overall help a community,” Bryant said.

Hardin-Bartley agreed that close-mindedness to the idea of student voice in the administration can be destructive to the relationships within a district.

“I try to understand the rationale for [opposing a student on the Board]. And I guess I would ask, you know, how do we feel about the judicial process, about the governmental process? What are we saying about these processes? And if we are stewards of students, which is what board members are, how can we not include their voice? I would just really want to understand the thinking and the rationale behind the opposition,” Hardin said.

At Clayton, measures have been taken in the past to bridge the perceived divide between students and the administration. One of the most prominent means of connection is the principal’s advisory at CHS, which is headed by Principal Dan Gutchewsky and attended monthly by a group of interested students.

“Principal’s advisory is a group that I started when I became principal,” Gutchewsky said. “It’s certainly not an exclusive group, in the sense that I wanted a body that represented students from all walks of life. We get together once a month, and usually I’ll bring an issue to the table and throw it out there for discussion to get student feedback on it. To find students for the advisory, I ask the faculty to think about kids in their class that would be a good representation of some segment of student life at CHS, and I specifically ask for students that maybe aren’t in every club and committee and takes 10 honors classes, that’s not necessarily the profile of every student. I want to make sure that we cover a range of students, maybe students that aren’t necessarily always selected for something, so that we can get a pretty broad cross-section of lenses and opinions. It’s good for me to give me perspective, and it has led to some changes.”

Principal’s advisory is the primary place that Gutchewsky sources student feedback when making a decision. However, he is also in favor of the student leadership opportunities that would be provided through the addition of a student to the Board. According to Greg and Jaffe, current organizations life principal’s advisory are beneficial, but aren’t expansive enough to account for the entire student body.

“We don’t want to advocate for getting rid of those activities, we want them to keep going, and something that I will say, and this goes along with the election process, is that if there is one thing at this school that I want to be taken seriously, the one thing that can actually make change, I want this to be [the student on the Board],” Jaffe said. “Because right now, if you look at every club, every organization, if you look at the DECA board, the Speech and Debate board, which are both very sound, they operate well, they can do things within their own club, but let’s do something that can affect the whole District. So if there’s one thing that students should take seriously, it’s this initiative, because that’s going to make direct change, and that’s the whole goal.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Board President Kristin Redington, photographed by Naomi Merihue.

This January, the Clayton Board of Education asked the community a question: what are the most important attributes we need to develop in graduates in order for them to be successful?

Students, parents, staff and alumni gave a variety of answers, from kindness and empathy to a love of learning and critical thinking. Several other themes emerged when community members were asked to consider the ideal attributes of a Clayton graduate: confidence, integrity, diversity, creativity, mental and physical health, social and life skills and personalized learning and adaptability. From there, the Board began analyzing which of these qualities are currently absent among Clayton students in an effort to understand how the school district can better develop key values.

Some students in particular have noticed the toll that school has taken on their mental health.

“Sometimes it’s hard to remember I am still young, I’m still a kid. This environment that we’re in is intended to prepare us for adulthood, but the rigor and the competition can make it feel like we are already years ahead of our time. Sometimes I feel like we can lose some of those important aspects of childhood,” junior Sara Stemmler said.

For Greg, mental health is a key feature of a capable graduate, and, as such, is an area the District needs to focus on.

“Obviously mental wellness is something that’s a problem across the nation, but we definitely see that in Clayton quite a bit, and we want to make sure that the kids have all the resources they need to be mentally healthy and physically healthy,” Greg said.

Both Greg and Jaffe agree that the students’ opinions need to play a more active role in the policy decisions being made for the student body, and their new approach offers a solution—having a student representative on the Board of Education supported by an advisory council. They believe that having students offer their unique perspective will help the School Board create successful graduates, and will allow the administration to track progress and receive direct feedback

Doherty discussed how he might use the coming year’s District strategic plan to focus more on Clayton’s attainment of important student qualities.

“With our new strategic plan, my hope is that we really ask ourselves, if these are our priorities, how are we aligning our resources to make sure that we’re supporting those ideas?” Doherty said. “So if we’re looking at a different type of approach to learning, or a different position that would support learning in a different way, then our resources should be aligned to that.”

Any school district’s first priority is the well-being of its students. The goal is to not only develop a student’s academic ability, but to also construct an admirable character. Clayton values the qualities described by its students, parents and staff: leadership, confidence, integrity and kindness. With a willingness to use available resources and the advice of a student representative on the School Board, Clayton will be well on its way to creating graduates that its community can be proud of.

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