Student voice represents an innovative opportunity for schools to use the voices of their students to create meaningful and impactful change. Providing students with the opportunity to develop their capacity as leaders and changemakers helps them develop key skills they will need as they leave their K-12 experiences. The intention is that these skills are supporting them in their development as humans now and in the future.
The following is a case study of a school focusing on the development of a culture focused on student voice:
School Overview: American School of Guatemala
The American School of Guatemala (CAG) is an independent, non-profit, non-denominational, college preparatory international school based in Guatemala City. Serving over 1,700 students, CAG provides a dual language program of English and Spanish to both local Guatemalan and international families. The high school at CAG provides a four-year college preparatory experience for students. CAG is accredited through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). It also provides the opportunity for students to obtain two diplomas: the Guatemalan Bachillerato and the CAG High School diploma, accredited by the American organization NEASC.
Inception of Student Voice at CAG
In 2018, the American School of Guatemala embarked on a strategic planning journey that would set up their goals for the next handful of years. One outcome of this was a vision project focused on creating student-centered programs across the school. The High School at CAG took a deep dive into what a student-centered program could look like and began their journey by collecting data from teachers and students.
The outcomes of the data collected, through surveys and interviews, became the springboard into the focused work the high school team took on in order to build a student-centered learning experience for CAG students. From these data, it became clear that students needed a say in what happened in their school experience. Specifically, students shared that they wished that they had more choice, more choice in what they experienced during their school day and in the courses that were offered or that they could take.
The start of building capacity for student voice in the high school at CAG began with a question: How do we provide more opportunities to students for them to create the school they wish to see and have the experiences they dream of having?
Student Voice Work Thus Far
The first step that the high school at CAG took was to look into the daily schedule students and teachers engaged in, as well as the course offerings given to students. A team of students and teachers was created to research ideal schedules and then to design a schedule that served students in a better way. This team looked at the survey data and identified three goals for the new schedule: fewer classes each day, longer breaks, and time for students to have flexible time (for things like meeting with peers or teachers, clubs, and time to rest). The outcome of this was a proposed four period block schedule with two breaks and a period of time before the long break which could alternate between advisory classes and a flexible block of time.
Additionally, the high school administration team analyzed where there were opportunities for choice within the diploma requirements. Teaching teams came together, dreamed, and developed various opportunities for choice in a variety of departments. For example, Spanish language classes became investigations into novels, poetry, theater, and short stories. The science department brought in Zoology, Anatomy and Physiology, and Astronomy. Students began sharing ideas with advisors, teachers, and administrators about courses they would be interested in, and courses were added in order to support the varied interests of the student population.
The requirements of the two diplomas offered to students created a handful of obstacles to dreaming as big as the team wanted. The CAG high school team believed that there were different ways to serve students, even within the confines of the diploma requirements. This is where mini-mesters were born.
If you could learn about anything, what would you want to learn? This is what the team asked students and the responses were incredible. Students had passions for finance, wellbeing, arts, medicine, cooking, and more. The data was analyzed, and teachers dreamed up courses that aligned with the learning wishes of students. Courses such as Italian Cooking and Language, The Mad Scientists Art Lab, Macrame, Yoga and Mindfulness, Survival Skills After High School, and The Art of Printmaking.
Mini-mesters are week-long learning experiences that students embark on twice a school year between the trimesters. Each student engages in two different courses each session and receives elective credits for their learning on their transcripts. During mini-mesters, students set aside their standard eight classes and focus on learning about different topics about which they are passionate.
The original idea was for teachers to be the facilitators of these learning adventures. However, as a handful of CAG students were presenting about student voice at an international conference the question arose: What about students creating and facilitating mini-mesters? This opened the door to the incredible opportunity that CAG High School students have in using their voices and passions to create and facilitate a learning experience for their peers. In the first round of mini-mesters, students created and facilitated one course: Building a Meaningful Life. In the subsequent mini-mester sessions, there have been on average more than 10 courses created and facilitated by students.
Opening the Door to Opportunity
The development of a culture focused on student voice at CAG in the high school has been a journey that continues to shift and grow as students change. The key to developing this culture is creating a variety of ways, spaces, and opportunities for students to develop and share their voices. The team continues to assess how they are doing in meeting the goal of creating spaces for all students to feel heard, and as though their voice has the capacity to create change.
Safe spaces have become key in developing a culture of student voice. Some of the ways that the high school at CAG has sought to do this is through the development of an advisory program, focused on creating strong advisor-student relationships. Empowering the student government (SGA) to set their goals on listening to their peers and finding ways to create a culture in which students see the SGA as an avenue to amplify their voices has had a positive impact. The administration developing an open-door policy in which students have the ability to stop by and share ideas has also improved the culture around empowering students to feel as though they have a voice.
There will never be a finish line; this work will never be done. As students change, as the team learns more about the needs of students, and as the community tries different ways to support each other, the culture will get closer and closer to being one fully focused on students and their voices. As adults continue to see students as partners in the development of educational experiences, the program will get closer and closer to serving more students in the community.
The high school team at the American School of Guatemala continues to seek feedback from students in order to make changes in the courses that are offered. Looking forward, the schedule for next school year will be developed by students and teachers in hopes of meeting the learning needs of more students. Course offerings will continue to change each year as students become more aware of what they are passionate about and wish to see in their daily lives.
The next step will be to continue developing more opportunities for students to feel safe to share their voices in order to create the changes they wish to see in their educational journeys. As the students change each year, this becomes a continuous process of looking at who our student population are and how we serve them. In the end, this work will never be done as students and the world are continually changing.
Read more about how developing and engaging student voice in schools is an incredible opportunity for students to drive the change they need in a rapidly evolving world in Student Voice: What Drives Change?
Dr. Jaime Brianna Pustis is an educator and leader in international schools. She is currently the high school principal at the American School of Guatemala. She has worked and traveled internationally with her husband, Rob, and their fox terrier, Brindisi, for the last 15 years. She is passionate about human centered leadership, school culture, and student voice in driving change in schools.