Natalie Armstrong wore leggings all through elementary school. But she had to adjust her go-to wardrobe when she started 6th grade at Western Branch Middle School in Chesapeake, Va., because the dress code policy required girls to wear tops that fell past their buttocks if they were wearing leggings.
Cold-shoulder tops also were banned, along with shorts that ended above the knees and jeans with rips or holes. Boys couldn’t wear sagging pants. And students who repeatedly violated those rules could face an in-school suspension.
“I literally had to wear a dress over my leggings,” said Armstrong, 14, now a freshman at Western Branch High School, who added that she spent more time in the morning worrying about whether her clothes would get her into trouble than about what she’d learn in school that day. “I was so annoyed with it—since the day I got into 6th grade.”
That’s changed due to the efforts of a student-led social justice task force initiated by Principal S. Kambar Khoshaba that has prompted action in the last year on issues from the dress code to the concerns of LGBTQ students and inclusion of students of color in honors classes.
“If you listen to kids, they’ll give you a different perspective,” said Khoshaba, who invited students last year to share what they’d like to change at school. “They are the primary clients.”
In addition to dress code changes, the social justice council’s efforts prompted much-needed privacy additions and aesthetic upgrades to the girls’ and boys’ restrooms, and changes in the lunchtime seating arrangement that allowed students in some grades to eat with friends.
Efforts to foster a more-inclusive school environment include a new sensory garden for students with autism and a Gay-Straight Alliance club.
And the school is modifying how it selects students for honors classes in response to concerns that students of color were underrepresented in those classes.
A concerted effort to have students’ voices heard
With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting schooling and communities for nearly 18 months and the country undergoing a wide discussion about equity, Khoshaba wanted to give students an opportunity to have their voices heard and actively shape their experience during the school year.
“I want students to feel like this is a safe place for them, that is where they’ve had the best time of their lives,” said Khoshaba, who is in his eighth year as the school’s principal. “And in order to do that, we have to talk to them, we have to listen to them. For me, it’s been 30 years or so since I’ve been [a student]. ... What was available for me back in the day and what’s available to our students today are drastically different.”
Khoshaba initially invited 40 students to participate in the initiative last year, 20 each from 7th and 8th grades. Because some students were still learning remotely, half of the students invited were at home.
He also opened participation to anyone else in the school, to draw beyond the students who were most often involved in school activities. Eventually, a core group of 15 students, mostly 8th graders, stayed on.
They came with lots of ideas, some of which they had been itching to get off their chests for some time.
The dress code was one burning issue. Participants also said LGBTQ students, some of whom were being bullied, needed more support. There were issues with the girls’ restroom: The smell was unpleasant, there was a gap when the door closed that didn’t allow for complete privacy—and they wanted full-length mirrors. The urinals in the boys’ restrooms also lacked privacy barriers, and students had to keep their hands on the faucet to keep the water running while washing their hands.
While one student suggested no homework, and another Kool-Aid in the fountain, the students “were not asking for anything unreasonable,” Khoshaba said.
“By and large, the things that we settled on were very serious and mature topics,” he said.
A particularly meaty one was the enrollment of students of color in advanced classes. Khoshaba dug into the school’s data and found that the students’ perceptions were correct.
While about 37 percent of students at Western Branch were Black, they made up 24 percent of those enrolled in honors classes.
“Their perception was validated by the numbers,” Khoshaba said.
The school uses state standardized tests, reading scores, class grades, and teacher recommendations for placement in those courses. But often, if a child is not in honors in 6th grade, even if they get all A’s in their regular courses, they stayed on the regular track in subsequent grades. And some parents, who were also participating in a school-led social justice initiative for adults, told Khoshaba that they didn’t know how to get their children into those classes.
After discussion, the academic team developed a profile of character traits students in those classes demonstrated, such as being self-starters, organized, motivated, and ready to take on challenges.
Your voice can be very powerful in shaping the world. ... Look at what you’re doing to shape the [school’s] culture, not just for this year’s kids, but for future generations.
The team is asking teachers to recommend students who are doing well in their courses and show those traits for honors courses. The school is deemphasizing— but not removing—standardized testing as part of the honors entrance considerations. And it’s also made it less intimidating to take honors, allowing students to enroll in one of two courses instead of a full slate.
The disproportionality gap for Black student placement in honors has fallen from 13 percent to 8 percent from last school year to this one, Khoshaba said.
Making the case on highly personal issues
On the dress code, the students came prepared to back up their requests. They told their principal that the dress code was unfair to girls, students of color, and poor students.
“One of the kids sent me research,” Khoshaba said, “which was humorous as well as amazing to me that a child would be so invested.”
But it was Armstrong’s statement that she spent so much time in the morning worrying about what to wear so she wouldn’t earn a dress code violation—or get “dress-coded” as the students referred to it—that floored Khoshaba.
He wasn’t aware of how much of a problem the code was for female students.
“That’s a hard concept—to say that our practices are discriminatory,” said Khoshaba, who inherited the policy when he became principal. “It’s hard because you need to be open to the idea that you may be discriminating against kids.”
With half the students at home last year, Khoshaba used the opportunity to try out the new dress code—girls can wear shorts up to the mid-thigh, and cold-shoulder tops are now permitted, for example. The school has dialed down the punishment, opting to have an in-person suspension served during lunch time for repeat violations.
“I was really excited, and I know a lot of students were excited that they could wear the clothes they wanted and they were comfortable in school,” Armstrong said. “They were happy about it. It makes me feel better about making that change.”
Grace Bowers, who thought the dress code was unfair to female students, said the changes have been a relief.
“I am very proud of what we did,” said Bowers, now a high school freshman. “It was really a positive change for me and for students in the middle school now … I don’t think they are as anxious to think they are going to get ‘dress-coded,’ or what other people will think about what they are wearing. It relieves so much tension.”
Restrooms were updated with new faucets and black strips were added to ensure privacy in the girls’ bathroom. Misting sprays were purchased to deal with the odor, and partitions were installed so that boys could have some privacy in the restroom. And full-length mirrors were added to the girls’ bathrooms.
The students give their principal credit for facilitating the changes.
“He’s always been on top of stuff, and he’s always been good about actually listening to us and getting it done, so I did expect it to be fixed,” said Ava Bell, 13, who was part of the group that discussed the girls’ bathroom issue with Khoshaba over the summer.
“I was just very surprised at how soon he got it done, because it was done before school started.”
Bell is more empowered to approach the principal if she sees things that need to be addressed.
“Knowing that he helped us with that, and he’s helped us before with problems, it makes me feel more confident that other students will go ask—because when you have someone that actually gets stuff done, it makes you feel better to talk to them and ask for help,” Bell said.
Inclusivity, which is also part of the school’s theme this year, is also important to Bell.
“We’ve been really trying to include everyone, because if school is only good for one person, then it’s not good for everyone else,” Bell said.
A learning process continues
The honors program remains a work in progress, and there were questions about whether the quality of the program would be diluted. The only issue that was somewhat controversial was the proposal to start a Gay-Straight Alliance club, Khoshaba said.
“Everybody who I’ve talked to wants to support children,” Khoshaba said. “This was just a concern [about] why are we doing this and why are we doing it now. I explained to people I spoke with that this is what students are asking for, and if students are asking for something, if it’s reasonable and we can do it, we’re going to do it because this is a student-centered school.”
It was a powerful learning process for the students, he said.
“The kids saw that they said something, and it changed the experience at school,” Khoshaba said. “Your voice can be very powerful in shaping the world. ... Look at what you’re doing to shape the [school’s] culture, not just for this year’s kids, but for future generations.”
Bowers said it was a fun experience participating in the committee, and she will likely continue to speak up about things she cares about.
“It made me feel very confident that I actually had a voice, that I could say what I wanted, and that my opinion was valid,” Bowers said.
Lindsey Coates, 13, a member of the cheer team, yearbook, and the Student Council Association, said the process made her comfortable bringing her concerns to the principal’s attention.
“It just made me feel really seen and appreciated, ” Coates said. “Our school really listened to us … I feel comfortable bringing ideas to light.”
Amy Daniel, who teaches 8th grade U.S. History and serves as director of student activities, the SCA advisor, and PTA liaison, wasn’t surprised by the topics the students asked Khoshaba to address, but she was struck by the level of detail and the rationale underpinning those requests.
“Sometimes it makes a difference when it comes from kids, sometimes it can be so moving—it’s like that lightbulb goes off,” Daniel said.
Students, she said, felt they’d been listened to by their principal.
“I feel like what you’re doing is you’re modeling the proper way for leadership,” Daniel said. “He’s letting kids know [how] to make positive decisions, and he’s showing that part of being a good leader is listening and taking action.”
Makayla Waiters, 13, who is involved in the Student Council Association and orchestra, quickly accepted Khoshaba’s invitation to join the social justice initiative last year. A key point for her was celebrating students’ heritage and promoting unity and an inclusive school community, where students of all backgrounds and sexualities felt comfortable.
“It’s definitely an accomplishment that I won’t forget—ever,” she said of the changes made so far because of the students’ involvement.
Adults, she said, should take students’ concerns seriously. “They should definitely treat them like people, and not just kids taking tests and getting good grades—just treat them as people, as equals.” she said. “Make them feel like they have a voice, … but also [guide] them to help them make the right decisions.”
Mia Arie Wilson, 13, who participates in the Student Council Association and cheerleading, was also part of the “Be You, for You” campaign to promote schoolwide inclusivity.
“It’s symbolically letting kids know everyone has the right to feel comfortable in their own person,” she said. “It’s a reminder to be kind, to be accepting of people.”
The improvements have led to a more peaceful schooling environment.
“It’s just really peaceful. You can wake up in the morning and just know that you’re going to have a peaceful day here, and I really like that.”
Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2021 edition of Education Week as Students Sought Changes at Their Middle School. Their Principal Listened, and Acted