Featured Program:
The Student Voice Collaborative, New York City

by Yatzeni Gonzales, Emma Jackson, and Roberto Rivera

At first glance, a group of young people gathered in a room eating pizza might seem like a typical activity in a high school, but the topic of conversation of a recent meeting was unusual, even unique. The youth at this particular meeting were discussing their role in educational change.

As leaders of New York City’s Student Voice Collaborative (SVC), these students regularly gather to improve their local schools and systems as a whole. Ari Sussman, the adult facilitator of the collaborative, partners with youth ambassadors in identifying critical issues taking place in schools and in the district. He further supports the collaborative in developing action plans, implementing their plans, and assessing the impact. “When students feel heard,” Sussman says, “they feel more valued, and when they feel more valued, they become more motivated to participate in school.”

Every public school in New York City is a member of a Department of Education (DOE) network that provides support in a variety of key areas. Founded in 2010, the Student Voice Collaborative now includes nine high schools in three networks. The SVC involves two to three student council representatives at each school to ensure that participating students have a team with which to work and organize. Although they and their schools are unique, one thing all these students have in common is they want to make a difference in schools across New York City.

Crystal and Maria are two students who, when given the opportunity to make a difference, were excited to take charge. Maria, currently a freshman who has been involved with the group since January 2014, has already had an opportunity to make concrete changes at her school through designing and implementing a “Student-Led Campaign.”

Maria’s idea for her school was a “Communication Parking Lot.” Students felt like they weren’t being listened to by the school staff or administration, Maria explained. They didn’t feel comfortable talking to the teachers and asking them questions about what was going on in the classroom or in the school. Maria and her two SVC school partners mobilized an action team of students and staff leaders to implement the idea. Every homeroom was provided with a large poster where youth could post questions, make comments, and share questions and concerns about a class. Then, once a week, the teachers address the students’ questions and comments. The result has been better communication between students and teachers and between teachers and the school administration. “It has opened students up,” Maria says, “given them a chance to ask questions they couldn’t in person, and feel more engaged overall at school.”

Cristal, a junior who has been a member of SVC since September of 2013, also has seen her ideas make a difference. Looking back at a critical problem in her school, she says, “We felt like teachers and the administration only focused on the wrong things we do, and we never got recognized for the right things we do.” Cristal and her partner Manniely got buy-in from the teaching staff and principals to start a project called “Student of The Month.” This award, given for both academic achievement and social and emotional competence, allows one student a month to have lunch with the school’s administrators. Students take the award very seriously because in addition to receiving the award, they serve as ambassadors for their fellow students in discussing with administrators what is going well at the school and what can be improved. “Right before the trimester ends,” Cristal says, “lots of students are seen working hard to finalize their classwork because they want to be selected as the student of the month.” The campaign has had a visible impact in the school. Students and teachers report increased academic achievement in the student body, a more positive school climate, and improved communication between the students and administration.

As part of their school-based work, SVC members use the student voice rubric they created to assess their schools and identify challenges. To access the rubric click here.

To better understand how NYC schools work and how the DOE defines school quality, each year SVC members serve as “Student Shadows” on official Quality Reviews (annual performance review visits by the district). They contribute to the accountability process by providing observations from the student perspective. SVC Student Shadows believe that student participation offers greater insight into the real heartbeat of a school, which makes the process more helpful to both the district and the schools.

Participating in SVC also encourages youth to make some positive personal changes. Crystal’s involvement with the group has cultivated in her a passion to educate others on human rights and social justice issues. “When youth begin to realize they have a right to speak and the impact it can have in schools,” she says, “it can help them focus on making positive changes in their community.” She and many others in SVC have been inspired to greater school engagement, deeper bonds with peers, and a desire to create lasting change in the world around them.

When asked what they want their specific legacy to be with SVC, Maria mentioned that even after only two months in SVC she really enjoys helping other young people. Her goal is to model youth voice so the next generation has someone to look up to. Crystal stated, “I want to leave a template so that the next generation can effectively continue the fight for youth involvement and equality.”

In giving advice to other youth seeking to have a voice in their schools, SVC participants stress that “in order to fix the system you have to work with the system.” Crystal and Maria specifically stated, “You must find someone in the district who believes youth can contribute and then work with them. No matter how many times you fail, keep going. Youth voice is one of the keys to changing public education.”

For more information about SVC visit their website or email Ari Sussman. To read an interview with Ari Sussman about the role of student voice in democratizing schools click here.

Yahtzeni Gonzalez is a second-year student at Harold Washington College in Chicago and an award-winning youth leader. She volunteers with the CASEL youth voice council and is passionate about youth voice and justice issues for immigrant students.

Emma Jackson is a senior at Ohio State University who recently completed a semester abroad in Chile. Although her studies focus on Spanish and integrative medicine, she believes that healthy whole people create healthy communities and that youth voice is part of a healthy educational ecosystem.

Roberto Rivera is a predoctoral fellow in the Social and Emotional Research Group at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is focusing his research on the intersection of social and emotional learning, culturally relevant pedagogy, and youth voice.