In schools, it’s common for there to be a divide between the administration and the student body that’s hard to bridge. Local schools are trying to reach out, shown by the Minneapolis Board of Education’s decision to give a student representative a nonvoting seat on the board.
For students, though, that move rung hollow: a token position that didn’t have voting rights. Looking to improve its own interactions with students, St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) is taking a new approach through Student Engagement and Advancement Board (SEAB), a 13-student group that researches and recommends changes to improve the educational experience.
SEAB, now in its second school year, was formed under the guidance of Shaun Walsh and two of her peers. To mitigate the popularity factor of an election, Walsh and her peers chose an application process and interviewed students, grades 10-12, from St. Paul schools.
The first year SEAB established a framework. This year’s agenda is action focused. To improve student inclusiveness, SEAB recommends three changes: The ability of students to choose to wear cultural garments at graduation; to examine the district’s disciplinary programs; and to adjust the district’s social studies program to better reflect the diverse student population of St. Paul schools.
Last year, graduating senior Chandra Her was asked to remove a traditional Hmong stole that violated an existing rule against personal modifications to the graduation uniform.
“Many of the other students had their cultural items physically taken off of them and confiscated,” says Skyler Kuczaboski, a senior at Harding Senior High School. “I think this is extremely disrespectful and I want to make sure none of this happens ever again.”
This disconnect between student emotions and the Board of Education is what inspired Central sophomore Rajni Schulz to join SEAB this year. “It confuses me that decisions in SPPS are not made by the people ultimately effected by them; the students,” she says. “The diversity present in the SPPS community is a beautiful thing,” she adds, which is why the graduation rule has become one area of focus.
While the experience gives its participants valuable leadership and community building experience, the purpose of the group is to improve the student experience for all 60,000 SPPS students. They research and identify issues, taking suggestions from the Board of Education but making their own decisions on topic, tone and recommendations, and speaking with the general student population.
Walsh recalls a presentation at the close of the 2015-2016 school year as evidence of SEAB’s influence on students’ lives. “[A SEAB student] was in a meeting with a board policy work group with kind of cantankerous adults and she really held her own,” Walsh says. She’s also proud that the students followed her advice and requested the right to evaluate their facilitators. In other words, the students can fire her.
The purpose all along was “to take the power to the people,” Walsh explains. Students are standing up for themselves, using their power in constructive methods that are bearing results.
“I’ve been surprised at the receptiveness with adults,” she says, citing a presentation from late last school year where SEAB members used their own experiences as students to describe challenges to their learning environment. “Different departments have used that phrasing in their presentations [this year],” Walsh says, showing that when SEAB speaks, educators listen.
“They still only represent 13 students, they don’t represent the student body,” Walsh admits, but she sees SEAB as a foundation for more effective student-education board interaction.