Working Together To Make Change

Scholar perspective By | Dane Stickney

In reading the piece by Allan Tellis, DJEC’s Chier Writer, the following line stuck with me: “Students have a particularly good vantage point to assess what is going well within the educational system as well as what is not.” I would like to use this as a jumping point for my contribution to this Journal issue.

As a researcher, curriculum designer, and teacher coach, I find that honoring youths’ lived experiences and inviting students to the decision-making table is a passion. During the spring of 2020, the Critical Civic Inquiry Research Group, of which I’m a part, participated in online town hall meetings aimed at checking in with Denver Public Schools students as they navigated remote learning during the pandemic. As the students shared, we listened. One youth said, “I feel like my teachers forgot that we do still have a life, too. I still gotta go to work and work my ass off to provide for my family. The world doesn’t stop for people of color, even in a pandemic” (Hipolito-Delgado, et al., 2021, p. 7). Another participant in the Zoom meeting shared in the chat, “We’ve had the privilege to ignore this and not prepare for a situation like this. There needs to be future preparation in place, preventable measures, and intervention supports for our students in the future” (Hipolito-Delgado, et al., 2021, p. 5). 

Students shared several stories and concerns. They mourned the loss of classroom and school community, described assignments as boring and lacking in rigor, and complained about poor communication from teachers, counselors, and other school professionals. Above all else, however, they wondered why no one from the district sought their expertise as students. One student said in the town hall meeting, “It would have been nice if our voices were heard at the beginning of all this” (Hipolito-Delgado, et al., 2021, p. 6).

This all begs a foundational question: Why aren’t we asking youth what they need to be successful in returning to the classroom? Too often, adults dismiss the idea of centering student voice, claiming that youth are too immature or lack the required skills to meaningfully direct their own learning. Those deficit claims, according to our research, are garbage. Instead, we’ve found that when teachers pivot to authentic student interest and allow youth to lead discussions, research, and presentations to adults, powerful things happen. Students who have participated in such classes–what we call student voice classrooms–have shown statistically significant increases in academic achievement, efficacy, and engagement, as well as growth in psychological empowerment (Kirshner, 2015; Hipolito-Delgado & Zion, 2017). In other words, they better understand themselves and their surroundings and possess the agency needed to push for equitable change.

Change is hard without trailblazers, exemplars for what this radically student-centered work looks, sounds, and feels like. The Student Bill of Rights (SBoR), a group of youth from across DPS, are providing an exemplar as they work to codify a set of rights for students in the district. They request that the DPS School Board commit to bolstering student access and protections in seven areas: culture/diversity; equity; accountability; health; due process, curriculum; and, of course, student voice. Many of their demands mirror the themes prevalent in Allan’s article, including holistic approaches toward student wellbeing, culturally relevant curricula, more diverse faculty, and an overall less rigid school experience. The SBoR document begins, “We, the students of Denver Public Schools, have a vision of a district in which all students are entitled to certain rights that put students first and give them a voice and power over their own education” (DPS students, 2021, p. 2). In other words, they are making a list of demands, but central to their argument is the idea that they–the students–will have legitimate “voice and representation in administrative decision making” (DPS students, 2021, p. 6). 

While that may sound like a radical act, it is also beautifully simple. In times of crisis–and make no mistake, we are still experiencing an educational crisis–I hope we will get back to the basics. If education is meant to serve youth and cultivate future leaders of our country, I believe the students themselves should have a say in what school looks like. They are the true experts of their educational experience and, as Allan’s article noted, they possess unique perspectives around which educational approaches work and which do not. Luckily, we don’t have to imagine what this might look like. The youth in SBoR have already drafted the blueprints. I can only hope our adult educational leaders are paying attention. 

Dane Stickney is a senior instructor and doctoral candidate in the School of Education and Human Development at CU-Denver. In addition to his teaching, Dane is part of the Critical Civic Inquiry research collective and supports Denver Public Schools’ Student Voice & Leadership program by leading teacher training and developing curriculum.

Works cited:

Denver Public Schools Students (2021). Student bill of rights: Student visions, rights, rules and 

desires. Retrieved from: 

Hipolito-Delgado, C. P., & Zion, S. (2017). Igniting the fire within marginalized youth: the role

of critical civic inquiry in fostering ethnic identity and civic self-efficacy. Urban

Education, 52(6), 699-716.

Hipolito-Delgado, C. P., Porras-Holguin, L. E., Stickney, D., & Kirshner, B. (2021). 

Advocating for students during distance learning: the role of the professional school counselor. Professional School Counseling.

Kirshner, B. (2015). Youth activism in an era of education inequality. NYU Press.