Months after a video of a Mount Hebron High School senior making racist comments about African Americans led to student walkouts and demonstrations, county schools will expand a program aimed at creating more inclusive and equitable learning environments.
The program, "Student Voice for Inclusion Equality," brings together educators and students to lead school improvement efforts. Piloted at Atholton, Long Reach and Oakland Mills high schools this past school year, the program will be implemented at every elementary, middle and high school in the 2016-2017 school year.
"Listening to students is just not enough," Cultural Proficiency Coordinator John Krownapple said at the system's first cultural proficiency conference, held Wednesday and Thursday at Atholton High School.
The event was attended by more than 300 administrators, educators and students who will lead the expansion of the student voice model at their own schools. Krownapple has led diversity and inclusion training for school staff for the past 10 years.
"What is really involved with student voice is sharing power," he said.
The concept of student voice, which has touted by some educational experts as a way of increasing student engagement in learning, is not only about listening to students, Krownapple said, but about learning from and leading with them, too.
"It's their voice, but it's our choice to amplify it, and make space for it in our schools," said Charlene Allen, the school system's leadership development coordinator. "How can we really make space for our students to roar?"
Allen quoted a finding from a 2014 survey by the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations that students who felt like they had a voice were seven times more likely to be academically motivated.
At the conference, Krownapple discussed elevating student voice through "student voice circles," in which students, teachers and administrators meet in small groups to discuss how to improve their learning environments. This is the form that the school system's pilot took last year and the form that the expansion will take in the upcoming year.
"It's looking towards students for deciding what the important issues are here, in this particular school," he said. "Especially in terms of inclusion and equity."
Conference attendees also heard from a panel of student leaders about the importance of engaging students in creating inclusive learning environments.
"Teachers have not experienced the life of a teenager in a while," Atholton High 2016 graduate Rogan Devlin said to laughter from educators in the audience.
Devlin participated in his school's student voice circle pilot.
"Teachers have to be able to work with students, to figure out what they have to say and to listen to what they have to say," he said.
Recent Hammond High School graduate Alexis Stratton-Bratcher, who is biracial, talked about how she was inspired to amplify her own and her fellow students' voices.
"I had always known about the disparities that happen in our county and all over the world," she said. "I always felt like I didn't have a voice. After the incident at Mount Hebron, I said, enough is enough. Me and three other girls, inspired by the Mount Hebron rally, created our own walkout."
The video of a Mount Hebron High School senior making derogatory comments surfaced on social media in February and led to a countywide discussion about racism in schools.
More than 150 Mount Hebron students walked out to protest the video and demand a more inclusive and multicultural curriculum and student government, among other demands.
That event inspired student demonstrations at other schools, as well as a vote by the Board of Education to create a new coordinator of diversity position. That position didn't make it through the budget for next year.
Speaking at the conference, Stratton-Bratcher said that Howard County needs to focus on inclusion and diversity until "we feel comfortable talking about race."
She shared her hopes for where this might lead.
"I hope my 6-year-old brother, who is biracial, doesn't have to choose what race he has to be," she said. "I hope that all kids, him and all kids, can acknowledge their backgrounds and their ethnicities and their differences and embrace them and from that, come together."