The Learner Advisory – Honoring Student Voice

Distinctive Schools created a Vision for Learning, naming seven key points we are all striving to achieve as a network. Last year, we developed a Learner Advisory group, meeting on Zoom to hear directly from our learners as part of our commitment to learner voice. Recently we were thrilled to host our first in-person Learner Advisory, bringing 40+ learners from each of our Distinctive Schools Chicago campuses together for a day of reflection and partnership. The focus of this advisory included four themes: Family Partnerships, Safety & Belonging, Attendance & Chronic Absenteeism, and Teacher-Student Relationships.

As a network committed to ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion work, one element of our Vision for Learning is: learners use their voice to advocate, create, and innovate as active leaders in their communities. 

Our focus on Learner Voice is rooted in our ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion work as a network. We have been inspired to rethink the way we engage our learners, ignited by Dr. Tammy Campbell, the founder and CEO of The Scholar First, who asked, “How long are we going to build and rebuild schools without once consulting with the people they are intended to serve?” 

Each of our Chicago campuses had student representatives, which allowed us to see the wider Distinctive community we are working to build, while also appreciating the unique perspectives of each school. Our community builder asked learners to reflect on ways they feel deeply rooted in their campus community; multiple students shared that they feel a sense of pride and belonging, citing specifically the morning announcements, community gatherings, teachers and staff members who greet them by name each day, and an overall feeling of acceptance that they can be their true selves. Based on student feedback, we’re confident that our work to develop a strong sense of belonging has been effective in making learners feel connected to and an important part of their campus communities. 

The majority of the Advisory was spent looking at and reflecting on data, and in breakout groups before returning to the classroom to share our findings with one another. Students reviewed a series of data points including data from YouthTruth, attendance and chronic absenteeism, 5Essentials, and the opportunities for family partnership at each campus. 

The initial responses from our learners were thoughtful, and we were able to dig deep during break out groups. Some Initial Findings:

  1. Family Partnerships: Students suggested launching a peer survey to gather feedback from all students to determine what partnerships they want to see at school; more awareness of what is happening in the schools and offering virtual opportunities for families to join who may not be able to be there; more community events. 

  2. Safety & Belonging: Talking to your peers, even ones you wouldn’t expect to have anything in common with, can open doors and strengthen community. Our learners are very passionate about the sense of belonging – everyone has a welcome place at school, and they understand that this translates to being accepted and accepting beyond our classroom walls.

  3. Attendance & Chronic Absenteeism: Learners with strong attendance are present because of supportive teachers, engaging content, connections and friendships; passionate teachers and curriculum aligned to their learning styles and interests is motivating; the relationship with staff is critical. 

  4. Teacher-Student Relationships: Teachers and students relationships will help students want to be there and to feel included; students praised their teachers for engaging them to find their own path, and would appreciate more opportunities to talk to teachers outside of class; a number of students mentioned the desire for more mentoring options including peer mentoring.

Students voiced their opinions, feedback, and shared stories of their Distinctive school experience. What we gathered from our learners was inspiring, helpful, and actionable. Some of our intentions for this session included providing opportunities for students to inform the decisions that we make and partnering with students to improve the school experience for ALL learners. Stay tuned as we continue to honor student voice throughout the year. Our next learner advisory will take place in January.