The Power of Student Voice: A Conversation on Education

2020 Student Voice Panel

Every year, TASB’s Governance Camp brings trustees and administrators a unique experience that highlights the incredible students at Texas’ public schools. Attendees learn from experts and peers about best practices and hear firsthand from students about their educational experiences in student-led panels and sessions.

A highlight each year at Governance Camp is the Student Voice Scholarship panel. A committee from TASB along with Joe De Los Santos of Walsh Gallegos review the scholarship applications, narrowing down hundreds to just five winners who receive a scholarship and also join conference-goers to share their unique public school journey. The panel is moderated by Paula Maddox Roalson, an attorney at Walsh Gallegos.

Scholarship recipients receive $1,500 from our sponsor, Walsh Gallegos.

We sat down for a talk with De Los Santos and Roalson of Walsh Gallegos about their experiences with the Student Voice Scholarship program and panel.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

First, could you each take a moment to define for me, what student voice is from your perspective?

De Los Santos: To me, it’s really a celebration and a recognition of the hard work that superintendents, board members, teachers, and staff put into students. It really is a reflection of their work.

The excitement that I have for the program really stems from reading the diverse stories of all these students and really getting excited about the future. There's a lot of leadership potential in many of the applications that I read. So, that’s really a cause for celebration and some excitement that what we're producing out there is cooking, if you will, and I think getting ready for future — future challenges and opportunities.

Roalson: I think that student voice — lending themselves to our local school board members, to their school systems, their local governments, their communities — is an empowerment of our next generation. And I think public educators have played such a vital role in the development of those voices that now to have the opportunity to be led by them into the future is really exciting. It gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

When we talk about student voices in terms of sharing information from their individual experiences, one of the things that we discover is that, collectively, we have a lot more in common than we do differences. So, I'm proud to be part of this project each year and I'm so proud that our law firm is able to partner with TASB on this because, to me, it's one of the most important things that we do.

How did each of you get involved in the Student Voice scholarship program, and perhaps more importantly, why?

De Los Santos: My first time [being involved in Student Voice] was seeing Paula and the students on stage at the actual panel presentation and I absolutely fell in love with it. I saw Paula and a group of students on this stage, and they were telling these compelling stories — Paula was doing a wonderful job getting them to talk, and it was actually very moving to me.

I noticed the impact that it had on the board members in the audience and, for me, that's what was behind my desire to have the firm support it and push it and commit to it. I think it's one of the best programs that I've ever seen in highlighting students and highlighting their hard work and the good work of our public school districts.

Roalson: My first interaction with Student Voice was at the (TASB) Winter Governance conference. I was asked some years ago to host the Student Voice Scholarship panel and student interviews.

And I remember at that time we were in Corpus Christi, and the students who took the stage were excited and nervous. They had all of this emotion wrapped up in that they were going to get to contribute to a conversation on school and public education — they were going to get to give feedback to their school board members, and not just from their own school district, but from all over Texas.

The thing I love the most about it, besides the fact that this is a collective audience of so many of us that care about public education, is the students. Their responses to some of the questions that are asked — many of the questions that we ask the students as part of the dialogue on stage are impromptu, so students don't know that these questions are coming — are so profound. And sometimes they're downright humorous. But I fell in love with it from the very beginning and I have told folks I think it's one of the most important and fun things that I get to do every single year.

What is the value — to students, the district, the community — of student voice in school districts?

Roalson: I think that from an administrative standpoint, Student Voice is important because it validates things like the nature of the school district’s performance, challenges that students are facing, it gives feedback regarding school climate.

And sometimes there are things that students identify that I think administrators need to know, but may not have been aware of, like how valuable certain teachers have been in the lives of these students or what it meant to get an award before the school district's board of trustees. So, I think for administrators to hear that and to understand that the information that's coming from these students is purely genuine — it’s all given for the purpose of allowing us to continue raising the bar in terms of our performance.

For school board members, I think it's an amazing experience to have a first-hand account from students on what they see in their schools every day. It's one thing to be told by the school district’s administrative staff how things are operating — we look so carefully at data, all of our decisions are data-driven, we use evidence to support what we're doing on everything from the curriculum we're implementing to the type of exercises we're performing in the gym — these students, however, their voices, when they lend to this, it gives a person to identify with that piece of data.

De Los Santos: For me, what I believe that students take away from this is really opportunity, opportunity to give input and an opportunity to have their voice be heard in a way that's authentic.

It's not just the good. There's the bad the ugly, too, and I think board members take from this an understanding of what that experience is like and how they can improve that experience. At the end of the day, I think what everybody takes away is that this is a collective effort.

What kind of hurdles or challenges do schools need to overcome in order to foster an authentic climate of student voice where the schools and students are in a partnership?

Roalson: I can speak for the conversations that I've had with students both in front of the audience of board members and also privately beforehand. One of the opportunities that I have as the moderator of the panel is to be able to meet each of these incredible young people before we host the event itself.

In holding those conversations, I've heard about challenges related to everything from discrimination — we've heard students talk about how they feel like they haven't been fairly treated based on any number of individual factors, race, disability, gender — and I've heard students talk about challenges such as who to report my concerns or my suggestions to about how I think we can make school better.

But for every concern or challenge that's been voiced, I've also heard a proposed answer. So, the power of Student Voice is that they don't simply identify an issue or a concern for them or their peers, they also follow it with ‘and here's the idea.’ They want to share on how to make this an even better place to come to school.

What are some of the key things you’ve learned about by engaging students in local decision making in local school districts?

De Los Santos: Upon a lot of reflection, my takeaway from the work that I do with TASB and the work I do in this program is about the diversity of experience. One size doesn't fit all, and that's really important.

One of the beauties of the program is that we're not just looking at big suburban school districts or urban markets. This program's open to students across the state. And it’s sometimes shocking how much common ground there is in terms of challenges that students are facing, but there's also a lot of diversity.

There're affluent areas and there's areas that are, well, not so much. The ability of Texas public school districts to keep their independence, to keep that flexibility to address the issues that are in front of them based on their in their communities is really, really important. And that's what these students are speaking to.

Roalson: I couldn't agree more. I think that we see so many interesting things students talk about very interesting ways in which they're participating in their school district leadership and interacting with their school boards.

I'll date myself here, but I graduated from high school in 1986, and my school district, Judson ISD where I graduated from, offered students the opportunity to come and sit with the board of trustees as a student representative. I had the privilege of doing that, and I've never looked back. Working with school boards is something I've always wanted to do to as a mission of service. I see it as a calling.

These students that we’re interacting with, and the applications that we receive, just validate that a million times over.

Student voices are easy to hear when they affirm what adults have already concluded but, in an authentic student voice program, there won’t always be alignment. What advice would you give to local school boards on supporting student voice even when it’s inconvenient?

Roalson: The most important thing from the students’ perspective, based on what they've shared with me, is the opportunity to be heard.

It's one thing for a board member to listen to a student's presentation, but it's a completely different thing for a board member to hear what the student is saying. We won't always agree. We won't always reach consensus, but certainly the opportunity to be heard communicates back to students that we value your participation and your input and regardless of the outcome on a certain decision or with an endeavor that you want to pursue. It says, we value your voice.

What advice would you give to local school boards and administrators on fostering more student voice in their districts?

Roalson: Words of guidance? One, talk to your neighbors.

Make sure that when you’re planning an activity, that you're prepared to implement it and implement it well. Anytime we incorporate a change in our process we need to make sure that we're prepared for the unexpected. I think talking to your neighbor school districts that have incorporated Student Voice into the conversation, the decision making, the school district planning as a whole, is important.

The second thing I would encourage is for board members to hear the students that they invited to participate. No one likes to be invited to a conversation only to be dismissed. So, I think hearing those students is important.

I also think that, as you prepare to engage and to bring in more student voices, talk to the students because they likely are going to have ideas and lend their voice to how this process might change, adapt, and ultimately become a better system.

I’m sure that each of you has a student or two that have stuck out over the years, either for the content of their essays or for their interviews on the stage. Could you each share one of those stories?

De Los Santos: That's an easy one for me. I experienced this a couple years ago. One of the applications we read was from young lady. She laid out a very, very moving story. She had gotten pregnant in high school, and struggled with that, but never gave up. The resiliency and the focus and the intention that she had, the desire to make a good life for herself and her child was really moving.

Her aspiration was to ultimately become a doctor. I'm a sucker for the underdog story and she was just so inspiring to me.

Roalson: Wow, I've met so many incredible students. It's hard to reflect on only one or two. There are a couple that stood out to me because of their call to service. We had several panelists, and one in particular that I'm thinking of who wanted to go into the military. He was headed to college, but then he very much wanted to serve in the military. He felt that he was being called to do that because he felt that service was important.

And I have followed him through the years, and have been blessed to see his progress and how he has done. And I thank him for his service.

I also met a young woman whose goal is to work for NASA, to be an engineer with NASA. And I’m confident that she will get there. She’s a brilliant young lady. The community from which she came was a smaller community. And she wrote me a note after the presentation and mailed it to me and thanked me for having her, because she felt like she truly had had an opportunity to do something. She also closed it by saying she had never met a female lawyer, and so she would always remember me.

Again, thinking to the content of these essays and interviews over the years, talk with me about what you’ve learned about what’s important to students and how that’s changed over the years.

Roalson: Over the course of the years, we have seen an ebb and flow of topics. One topic that’s been important and carried over several years through the voices of the students was the topic of bullying and harassment. We spent a lot of time visiting with students about how they saw themselves within their peer community on campus, how they were viewed by the administration, and ultimately the need for a change in school climate.

I’ve also seen the mental health awareness that these students bring to this program. They are authentic in how they share their experiences. Some of them have had significant mental health challenges, and I remember when the panel discussed school violence as a topic how these students were so open and candid about the day-to-day experiences that they have fearing school violence and worrying about how that impacts their mental health.

And then, of course, most recently we've talked about the pandemic. We've engaged virtually and visited with students who have talked about what it meant to go to school during the pandemic, how that impacted their senior year — everything from what to expect to the interactions and difficulties of communicating digitally and on a virtual platform.

But one thing I can say that they all have had in common is that they all were such a true reflection, of not just what they saw in their communities but comparable to what we were seeing statewide and nationally.

De Los Santos: I think it has to do with the access these students have the information, social media, Google. They're experiencing in the world in real time, 24/7, constantly. I believe that has an impact.

And that's why it’s really important for board members and administrators to really hear students out. They're a very deep group. With information parity, and with how instant new cycles are, they're a great resource for the adults in the room to think about. We can interactively plan with them for not only their education, but work to address future challenges.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

De Los Santos: There’s one more thing, and I didn't know how to frame it, but it's something that always sticks with me and orients me in a lot of the things that I do.

I always ask the question, “Why are we here?”

I think it's really important because it's a universal question. It's a question that board members and administrators should ask because it’s the question that I felt was answered when I went through the process and watching Paula interview these students in this program.

That's why we're here.

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