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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Student Advocacy for Every Secondary School

We can do a much better job of supporting the secondary school experience of our adolescents. I would like to share some ideas for parents, educators and students to think about this summer.

I was recently hospitalized for a couple of days. Chatting with one of the many excellent nurses I met at our local hospital, I learned about her teenage son's disaffection from school. A bright, good kid, he hadn't been performing well, and he was bored. You've never heard that story before, right? Probing further, I discovered that there was one subject he liked a lot, and one teacher in particular. His grades in that subject were very good. To me, a next step seemed clear. He should take other courses with that teacher and, ideally, have the teacher as a mentor. That combination would very likely have a positive effect across all the student's subjects.

But when the parent asked the school principal about assigning the student to that teacher's class next year, she was told that special requests could not be accepted for any reason. So much for responsiveness to individual student needs, either emotional or academic.

My recommendation was that she directly contact the teacher himself, who, if he's as responsive as he sounds, might be able intervene in the process.

The point, of course, is that this isn't about this one student; he's far from alone. It's about a general institutional lack of responsiveness to individual students' needs.

Providing Support?

I know that an increasing number of schools now have student advisory periods, a time when a group of students meet with a teacher for advisory help. These advisories are supposed to provide mentoring and psychological support, but rarely do. Most students that I've spoken with perceive advisories as a time for academic help but not a place where they can go to deal with personal problems and challenges.

A solution I'd like to see would be a student advocate in every high school that students can come to when they feel they aren't receiving the help they need or feel their rights are in some way being violated. This person should not be an advocate in the legalistic sense, but a counselor, mentor and intermediary. He or she should be someone who will ensure this student is treated fairly and productively in the school bureaucracy. The student advocate should also be accessible to parents if the student requests their involvement. This advocate could come from the teaching staff or be someone with a counseling background.

But here's another option. Given my own experience with high schools in which the principal barely has time to go the bathroom without someone trying to have a conversation with him or her in the hall, it hadn't occurred to me that the principal could be the primary student advocate! Then I read this great piece on EducationWorld discussing how the principal could fill this role. It’s worth a look. I don't know how practical this is, given the workload most principals have, but even if it isn’t the principal who serves as the student advocate, the included list of traits and actions serves as an excellent guideline for whoever assumes that role.

Attitude and Orientation

The first step is an attitude change among the school board members, the administration and the teaching staff, a recognition that:

  1. The needs of adolescents come first.
  2. Adolescent rights deserve to be protected.
  3. Adolescents should have a voice in schools.

What's also needed is an orientation program for all parents and students in how to work effectively with schools. I'm not talking about so-called "helicopter parents," who are very effective at exerting control. I'm talking about the majority of parents, who are often uneducated in school procedures and may even feel intimidated by teachers and administrators. I'm also talking about the majority of students who essentially just do what they're told to do, may grumble about fairness, but see no way of effectively asserting themselves.

And while I've placed an emphasis on high schools, of course a similar approach could be taken in middle schools and junior high schools. Here's a terrific story about how one middle school, Millard Central Middle School in Omaha, Nebraska, set up a comprehensive student advocacy program. It could serve as an excellent road map for creating similar programs in both middle schools and high schools.

College Readiness

Here's one more story. I recently helped a student who I think is exceptional. He's involved in an after-school enrichment program and is shining there as a leader. An immigrant kid from a local area with a very high Latino immigrant population, he plans to go to San Francisco State University next year but needs financial aid to do so. Given my connection to the university, I set him up with the head of that office so that she could help him in the process. SFSU is a very student-responsive place but, like many under-funded state schools, it's short-staffed, and negotiating the bureaucracy can be a challenge for kids.

Why didn't his high school provide him with this assistance? Does it have counselors who communicate directly with local universities to provide support services? What if he wasn't in this special program and I hadn't met him? Does the school provide that type of orientation? Kids who are the first of their families to be attending college too often get lost in the shuffle. Most immigrant and lower middle class kids need this assistance in every high school.

I think our high schools can do a better job providing support for students. Faculty and administrators should lead the way, and school board members should demonstrate their responsiveness by initiating policies to ensure this.

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