Equity & Diversity

Want to Build a Kinder, More Inclusive School? These Students Have Ideas

By Ileana Najarro — May 25, 2022 4 min read
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High school seniors Hannah Palmer, 18, and Macey Schriefer, 18, opened their virtual presentation to educators from across the country with a definition of microaggression: a subtle, intentional or unintentional comment made toward a marginalized group that causes harm, especially when experienced multiple times.

For instance, Palmer said, asking someone who is Asian American, like herself, where they are really from implies they can’t be from the United States and are a perpetual foreigner.

The duo from Avonworth High School in Pittsburgh, Pa., went on to cite research on the lasting effects microaggressions can have on students. They called on school administrators in attendance to make professional-development training on microaggressions, like their presentation, mandatory.

“The majority of the people that need it are not going to events like these,” Palmer said.

That was just one of the takeaways from the Students for Equitable Education Summit. The event, held virtually on May 14 and organized by the education nonprofit Digital Promise, featured 68 students from 16 school districts across 12 states leading presentations on everything from school discipline policies to history curriculum. The goal: to give students a chance to share their side of the story when it comes to pursuing equity in education, and to build learning environments where academic and performance outcomes aren’t pre-determined by students’ identities and all students feel a sense of belonging in school.

“I think students have a large part in voicing their concerns and also teachers asking students what their concerns are,” said Schriefer, who is Black.

Here are some other takeaways students want their teachers to know and act on:

Teach the truth even if it’s uncomfortable

In a session titled “History, Not Nostalgia: Teaching the Hard Truths of History,” students from schools in different states came to the same conclusion when discussing their history classes: information is too often limited to a Eurocentric perspective and the experiences of marginalized people are left out.

Through a series of slides based on research, the student presenters emphasized the need for history teachers to delve into national and local dark chapters of history such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II or a high school’s past use of the Confederate flag on school sports uniforms.

When calling on teachers to teach the whole truth in history class, students also pointed to the need for multidimensional coverage of people of color, such as covering the Harlem renaissance and Mesoamerican culture outside of the lens of colonization.

One student noted how her AP U.S. History teacher made an effort to teach about the perspective of a marginalized group whenever covering major events. But co-presenters agreed that’s not always the case in classrooms.

While recognizing the complex process of developing history curriculum, students said teachers could survey them about what they have learned and wish to learn in history class to see if there are projects or lessons that can better incorporate marginalized perspectives, often the experiences of people of color, into coursework.

Ask students for input and ideas when developing school policies

When it comes to dress code violations, fights and substance abuse among students, educators only have so much information to use when taking disciplinary measures, the students said.

In their session titled “Repairing School Discipline: Dress Codes, Fights, and Substance Abuse,” students talked about why educators need to learn more about what students are going through in and out of school. Those insights can help explain what led to disciplinary action.

For instance, are there alternatives to suspending students for substance abuse in school that make it clear the behavior has consequences but also get at why the student is engaging in the behavior? Having solutions to offer rather than punishment should be the end goal.

Whether it’s addressing discriminatory dress codes, adding gender neutral bathrooms, or developing fair disciplinary policies, students have something to say in these decisions and their insights can be valuable to the adults in the room, the presenters said.

Educate yourself on others’ experiences and your own privileges

Palmer and Schriefer, the students from Pittsburgh said as students of color in their majority white high school, they’ve noticed that microaggressions among peers is a big problem.

Educators, they said, play a role in putting an end to these incidents, but it requires that they first educate themselves on their own biases and privileges and create spaces to gather student input on what’s going on in school that teachers may not be aware of.

“I think that teachers need to create a space that is safe enough for students to feel that they can voice their concerns and their issues without fear of repercussions and retaliation,” Palmer said.

While there’s an onus on the adults to hear what students have to say, Palmer also made a call to action for students like herself and Schriefer, who want to see changes in how schools are run.

“Speak up, use your voice, schedule meetings with people and make sure that your voice is heard and make sure that there’s follow up with what you want,” she said.

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