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Student Well-Being

Student-Designed Poll Shows Teenagers Feel Lack of Adult Interest

By Catherine Gewertz — November 02, 2004 6 min read

An unusual survey, designed by high school students and administered to their peers in five large cities, has found that most urban teenagers are eager to learn, but don’t believe that adults at their schools are interested in what they have to say.

“Students as Allies in Improving Their Schools” is available online from What Kids Can Do. ()

The survey of 6,350 students in Chicago, Houston, Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia, and St. Louis during the 2003-04 school year showed that students generally give their teachers high marks, but say they need stronger relationships with members of the school staff.

Slightly more than half the students believed that the faculty and staff valued what they had to say, and a little more than a quarter said there was not one adult in their school they could talk to if they had a problem. Two-thirds or more said their teachers rarely or never talked one-on-one with them about their schoolwork or other things that matter to them.

The survey has sparked a wide range of improvement projects at many of the 25 survey schools. At one St. Louis high school, where teacher-student relationships emerged as a particularly weak area, five minutes have been shaved off each class to carve out a daily half-hour period for students and teachers to meet. At a Houston high school, students’ unhappiness with shoddy restrooms led to a cleanup effort.

Students and teachers who took part in the survey and resulting projects said it has bolstered students’ self-confidence, their interest in school, and their belief that they are valued members of the school community.

“Usually when we talk to adults, they’re not understanding what we are trying to get out to them,” said Joseph Jimenez, 17, a senior at a business and computer school within Lee High School in Houston, where students secured a foundation grant to revamp the restrooms. “It felt so good to know there was somebody out there listening to us, who actually heard our voices.”

Cultivating Leaders

The survey is part of an initiative designed to empower students and cultivate them as allies in bettering their schools. It was organized by What Kids Can Do Inc., a Providence, R.I.-based nonprofit group that promotes youth development, and financed by the MetLife Foundation.

The survey’s organization reflected its philosophy: The key was enabling students themselves to lead the effort. The teenagers worked with What Kids Can Do staff members and local community groups to design questions about school climate, teacher-student relationships, academic expectations, and other areas that might be improved by knowing students’ views about them.

High School Students Speak Out

In a survey designed by their peers, teenagers in five cities said they were disconnected from many of their teachers.

Have you ever thought about dropping out of school?
Yes 18%
No 82%
If “Yes,” why have you thought about dropping out?
School was boring 82%
I had family responsibilities 65
I was not getting along with a teacher/teachers not supportive 58
Other students were bullying or harassing me 36
I did not feel safe at school 27
I did not feel safe traveling to and from school 24

In its report, released last month, the organization says that it “cared more about students learning survey design and owning their research than about keeping questions identical and the generalizability of the results.” The surveys thus varied substantially from site to site. But a core of questions was common to all the sites.

Students presented their results to their school communities in varying ways, from discussing them at a retreat with the principal and the staff, as they did at Webster Groves High School outside St. Louis, to rewriting the findings as rap lyrics and performing them to a backdrop of hip-hop music, as Mr. Jimenez and his fellow students from Lee High School did.

Michelle M. Fine, a professor of social psychology and urban education at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, said the survey’s importance goes beyond just knowing students’ feelings, an area of inquiry often criticized as peripheral to the national dialogue about how to ensure that all students receive a high-caliber education.

Empowering students to be researchers and bring about change in their schools builds a sense of ownership that sparks engagement, a necessary condition of high achievement, she said.

“Tapping the extent to which young people feel they belong, are engaged, have adults to turn to, is a terrific predictor of the extent to which school is intellectually grabbing their curiosity,” said Ms. Fine, who has facilitated student-led research projects. “Particularly for poor and working-class kids, if they are not engaged, they are not going to achieve.”

Adults working to improve schools tend to rely on adult expertise, overlooking the unique input young people can offer, said Barbara Cervone, the president of What Kids Can Do. “They can help us have insight, point out things we may not see,” she said.

Jon Clark, the principal of Webster Groves High School, agreed. “To be the best principal I can be, I need their input,” he said.

Eager and Needy

Nationally, students surveyed had good feedback for their teachers. Three-quarters or more gave them A’s or B’s for being well-organized, communicating clearly, knowing their subjects, and having high expectations for students. Two-thirds of the respondents graded their teachers that well in caring about students and maintaining discipline. Barely half gave them A’s or B’s, however, for teaching students according to their individual needs.

Nearly 90 percent of the students agreed that they “really want to learn,” and 83 percent said that they regularly participate in class. But mismatches emerged between students’ needs and their perceived supports.

My teachers talk with me one-on-one about... Never/rarely Sometimes Often
Classroom Behavior 80% 13% 7%
Completing assignments 74 16 10
My interests and things important to me 68 20 12
Academic performance 68 20 12
My plans for college or work after high school 66 19 14

Four in 10 said they often need extra help, but 68 percent said their teachers never or only rarely talk to them one-on-one about their academic performance. Nearly half the students said they find it hard to pay attention in class because they’re worried about problems at home, but 27 percent said there wasn’t one adult in the building they could talk to if they had a problem.

Eighty-seven percent of students said that more real-world learning opportunities and more individual attention from teachers would help them.

The findings from the national questions, the site-specific queries, and open-ended questions that were also included prompted a variety of reactions at the schools.

At Webster Groves High, the principal and about a dozen other staff members spent two days brainstorming on a retreat with about 40 students. Administrators will now allow students to take part in interviews for hiring new teachers, and encourage teachers to survey their students each semester for feedback on how they’re doing.

Chris E. Swanson, 17, a junior at Webster Groves, said the process has made student morale soar.

“Students are more passionate,” he said. “It makes students feel more motivated to come in and realize somebody actually cares for my opinion. They say: ‘OK, I’ve listened because they care about me. I want to care about what they have to say.’ ”

Richard D. Wilson, 17, a senior at the Applied Arts, Science, and Technology Academy in Chicago, said participating in the project—which delivered better security to his school in response to students’ concerns—made him see himself differently.

“Now I know how much potential I have and what I can do,” he said. “It really opened my eyes.”

Diane H. Morrow, an English teacher who helped with the survey at Houston’s Lee High, said she saw a “magical” transformation in her students, most of whom are from low-income families. “They created something, and they excelled,” she said. “They’ll never go back to what they were before, and they’ll always carry with them the vision of what they can be.”

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