The student voice movement has been growing in Kentucky. This year, we're launching the next stage of it. Here's the history of the movement.

In the fall of 2012, a handful of students met in Lexington, Kentucky with a radical idea: students should have a say in their education. They didn’t realize what they were starting. None of them thought that they would gather three hundred students on the step of the capital or restore scholarships for 30,000 low-income students.

They spent the year discussing, planning, and debating what students could do to contribute to school decisions at the local level and the state level. They formulated a simple idea: that young people can contribute to education policymaking because students spend 35 hours a week in the classroom and have a significant perspective on what works and what does not.

In summer 2013, the group was adopted by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an education advocacy organization that’s helped lead Kentucky’s education improvements. The Student Voice Team, as they would call themselves, became the vehicle for Kentucky’s burgeoning student voice movement. The roots were planted, and over the next four years, they would amplify, elevate, and integrate student voice in Kentucky’s school system and education policymaking.

The embrace of student voice as policy partners by the Prichard Committee was important, and it spoke to the value of engaging young people in substantive efforts to improve our schools. In their thirty-year-plus history, the organization led the push for the Kentucky Education Reform Act, the most significant state reform plan implemented nationwide, in 1990; the postsecondary improvement plan in 1997; and Common Core in 2008. Involving the students in their work meant a lot for such a radical idea.

Students speak at an Our Kids Can't Wait rally

During 2014, the Student Voice Team conducted roundtable discussions with middle- and high-school students from Whitesburg to Bowling Green about a variety of education issues that affect them. But the conversation doesn't end there. Those young leaders also testified before the Interim Joint Committee on Education in Frankfort about the importance of student observations in the teacher evaluation process. And shared student perspectives about inadequate funding at a statewide summit and community rally. Finally, they presented about how incorporating student voices impacts effective teaching to a professional development conference for hundreds of Kentucky teachers.

In 2014, the radical idea began to be accepted. Students weren’t just participating with the Prichard Committee, but with larger education reform pushes including successfully asking the legislature for a funding increase in the school budget.

When the superintendent of Lexington, Kentucky public schools resigned in the fall of 2014, the Student Voice Team asked the district school board for a student to be added to the superintendent screening committee, a body which interviews and recommends a candidate to be hired. The screening committee includes teachers, parents, administrators, employees, and board members but no students. When the district school board explained a student couldn’t be added because the membership was set by Kentucky law, the Student Voice Team set out to change it.

In the 2015 legislative session that winter, the Student Voice Team wrote and fought for House Bill 236. Members wrote op-eds about why students should shape education policy, why students should be on search committees, and why confidentiality concerns were misplaced. The students testified in the House and Senate Education Committees.

Yes, I am young. But that’s the thing about student voice. You have to be a student!
Students testify in front of the Senate Education Committee with Rep. Derrick Graham (center)

The bill was passed by the House, but received strong resistance in the Senate and was in danger of failing because of two unrelated amendments. Supporters spoke out on social media with the hashtags #standwithstudents and #saveourbill, urging the Senate to remove the amendments and pass the bill. To show the senators there was support for the bill, the Student Voice Team organized a rally on the Capitol steps. Several elected officials attended the rally, including Secretary of State Alison Grimes.

Three hundred supporters showed up to the rally. Ashton Bishop, an eighth grade student, said:

“Yes, I am young. But that’s the thing about student voice. You have to be a student! HB 236 stands for everything student voice is. HB 236 will give students a chance to have a voice in the selection process of a superintendent, one of the most important leaders in any school system. Students who are selected by peers for this position would have a chance to work with adult allies, side by side, to improve their schools. As students, we know firsthand how so many of the decisions made at an administrative level affect us. We are on the front lines and in the classroom almost every day!”

The bill ultimately failed, but it wasn’t a setback for the movement.

The Student Voice Team built off of the momentum from the legislative session and released the student-written and student-researched report on postsecondary transitions. The groundbreaking report used student voice to provide insight to the dismal state of the high school to college transition in Kentucky.

They found that after doing statistical research and having conversations with students, parents, educators, policy experts, and others about the postsecondary transition experience, that the central problem with transitions in Kentucky is equality. Two features students have virtually no control over, their home zip code and their family’s income, determine so much of what we call college success. And while the college admissions process purports to be a meritocracy, these indicators disproportionately predict access to valuable resources and information that help successful college graduates earn a degree with manageable or no debt.

Some of the students they talked with told said they needed to work for pay during the school year and forgo the often-expensive extracurricular activities which would otherwise make them more attractive to competitive postsecondary admissions offices.

In reviewing the stark statistic and poignant voices, they considered what it would mean to have more transparent conversations about them not only in the public policy arena, but also in our homes and in our schools.

And then there were the students we spoke with who came from families with no history of college graduates, making the cultural leap they were hoping to take that much more difficult. The Student Voice Team found too that some students who were uncertain about whether they would make it to the next level of education after high school also had insufficient access to critical information like whether and how to apply for financial aid or what, besides academic achievement, a person needs to thrive in a college setting.

In their report, they called the inequalities that thwart students from making successful postsecondary education transitions “tripwires.” These are the little-discussed, powerful obstacles that tend to sabotage students on the way to a self-suffi cient, thriving life after high school. Specifically, they found these tripwires falling into three broad categories, ones they are calling: the Birthright Lottery, Veiled College Costs, and College and Career Unreadiness. The tripwires they highlighted in their report represented their attempt to raise the level of informed discussion among people who most stand to directly benefit from it — students and families. In reviewing the stark statistic and poignant voices, they considered what it would mean to have more transparent conversations about them not only in the public policy arena, but also in our homes and in our schools.

In 2016, the Student Voice Team asked the legislature to fund the Powerball Promise, a decades' old promise to spend lottery proceeds on education funding. But for the past ten years, need-based scholarships were underfunded, with money diverted to the general budget, while merit-based scholarships were fully funded.

The Student Voice Team didn't expect much, but suddenly the legislators and Governor were talking about it, and it seemed like a possibility.

For the first time in over a decade, leaders took meaningful, bipartisan steps towards ending the appalling practice of diverting lottery revenue from their intended purpose: need-based college aid. Funding was restored for an additional 30,000 students to get funding for college.

The movement finally had a success.

Over 2015 and 2016, the Student Voice Team contacted every principal, superintendent, and SBDM coordinator in Kentucky asking them whether students serve on school governance bodies in their school or district; if they would support the addition of a student member to those bodies; and what student voice opportunities are available to students in their school or district.

They found several locations with strong student voice initiatives that could serve as best practice models for the rest of the state. They also found many superintendents and principals who are open to developing more opportunities for their students and who echo the movement’s core contention that students, who spend thirty-five hours or more in the classroom every week, offer valuable perspectives on whether and how schools are working.

They released their findings in a report, and made several policy suggestions, including to: develop a culture of respect, support students to serve on school governance bodies, create a formal space or platform where students can share their perspectives with educators, and enlist students to collect peer feedback on policies.

Over the past year, the student voice movement has reached more people across the commonwealth. The Student Voice Team toured the Commonwealth, bringing their Students As Partners Workshops to students, teachers, administrators, and parents in a radical workshop model.

They heard directly from students about their school experiences. They’ve been from Appalachian coal country to the Jackson Purchase and from the rolling hills of the Bluegrass to downtown Louisville. What they heard is that when it comes to their own learning, most students feel powerless, as if they cannot make a difference in the way they experience school.

The student voice movement has grown in Kentucky to a size that was unimaginable to those students that gathered in Lexington five years ago. And we need to grow it more. Students are still getting ignored in education policy. We need a group that will protect students and represent their interests in Frankfort.

That’s why we’re starting Kentucky Students. We’re continuing what the Student Voice Team started and thousands of students across the Commonwealth have already been part of. Kentucky Students will be in Frankfort to fight for college affordability, AP testing funding, and to end corporal punishment in schools.

We're Kentucky Students, and we're here to represent the voice of students across the Commonwealth.

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