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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.

Comments (7)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Vanessa Liburd's picture
Vanessa Liburd
High school French teacher from Hollywood Florida

Mr. Phillips, your blog is an eye opener. Your nurse's student that you described, I have had so many of these students in my classes and it is a big struggle to try and keep these types of students from falling through the cracks. I have felt as if all I do is beg administration to allow me to help the students be successful. I wish my students could have an advocate. Most of he time I am their advocate but I am not always available and sometimes I am told I am going over my duties and to let it be. I agree with your three steps, the only thing is that I think some administrators are either blind to the students who are taking advantage of the system or they just don't care or they are playing favorites. I hope things can change for the success of the students who can succeed but need guidance and help.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist
Blogger

Unfortunately Vanessa, your case isn't an isolated one.
If you're tenured and really don't need to fear retribution, I'd find a few faculty allies and meet as a small group with the principal. If he or she isn't responsive, I'd try to ally with a few prominent and sympathetic parents and take it to the superintendent or board level.
Begging gets old quickly and hoping is too passive.

Good luck!:

Vanessa Liburd's picture
Vanessa Liburd
High school French teacher from Hollywood Florida

Mark, thank you for your comment. I have come to realize that what goes on at my school is not isolated. However, when only very few teachers want to get involved to help the students, I feel powerless. Especially when administration tells you its none of your concern. I am personally afraid to get too involved. I push the kids and send them in the right path but I don't want to stick my neck out too far so I don't get written up or worst lose my job. I love what I do, and I do it all for my students but of course there has to be a limit to it all. With the new teacher grading system in Florida, I am afraid that helping the "wrong" person might equal a bad grade (in some way) and three bad grades in a row, no matter how long you've been teaching means that you are no longer qualified to teach. I just help my students on the side lines at times, or informing the parents as to what should be done. Thanks again

Richard A. Watt's picture

VANESSA: TENURED OR NOT, WHEN YOUR STUDENTS DO POORLY ON AN ASSESSMENT OR MISBEHAVE IN CLASS.....YOUR TEACHING COMPETENCY AND/OR CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT SKILLS WILL BE TARGETED. ADMINISTRATORS ARE INCREASINGLY SCAPEGOATING TEACHERS TO KEEP THE HEAT OFF THEIR BUTTS. I WAS A HIGH SCHOOL HISTORY TEACHER IN CONNECTICUT FOR 15 YEARS AS WELL AS A CERTIFIED ADMINISTRATOR. I RESIGNED TWO YEARS AGO DUE TO THE WORSENING CLIMATE IN SCHOOLS TODAY. TAKE IT FROM A CERTIFIED ADMINISTRATOR....NEVER CONFIDE IN OR TRUST ANY ADMINISTRATOR>>>NEVER. THEY ARE NOT ALL EVIL, BUT LETS JUST SAY THE NUMBERS ARE GROWING. I AM NOT A DISGRUNTLED RETIRED TEACHER. I AM GIVING YOU THE SAME ADVICE I GAVE MY TWO DAUGHTERS. MY OLDEST TAUGHT HIGH SCHOOL MATH FOR 11 YEARS, SAID DAD I'VE HAD ENOUGH OF CONNECTICUT, MOVED TO MAINE AND IS HAPPY TEACHING THERE. MY YOUNGEST TAUGHT HIGH SCHOOL SPECIAL ED. IN CONNECTICUT FOR ABOUT 6 MONTHS, ABRUPTLY QUIT, FINISHED HER MASTERS IN SPEECH & LANGUAGE PATHOLOGY, MOVED TO LOUISIANA WHERE SHE TRAINS/MENTORS NEW SPL's FOR TWO HOSPITALS AND HAS HER OWN PRACTICE. BEST OF LUCK WITH YOUR TEACHING CAREER. I TRULY BELIEVE THAT TREATMENT OF TEACHERS NEEDS TO QUICKLY CHANGE FOR THE BETTER OR SOON EVERY DISCIPLINE WILL BE ON THE SHORTAGE LIST IN EVERY STATE. COLLEGE ENROLLMENT IN TEACHING PROGRAMS IS AT AN ALL TIME LOW.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Staff

Just a quick note that messages in ALL CAPS are commonly read as "yelling" in internet etiquette, in addition to being hard to read. I ask that you please use normal casing in future messages. Thanks!

Aaron Chang's picture
Aaron Chang
Assistant Principal at TBD

It's great to see all this information about topics that I believe in and think about regularly at schools. I'm glad to be continually affirmed that I am on the right track to helping our students feel engaged, successful, and challenged in education.

Mark, can you update the link for the Millard Central story? I am unable to find it. Thank you.

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