All students may participate in Student Voice at VHS, organizers said

By Terina Atkins, VHS media specialist

Vilonia High School students Ashton Rappold, JD Otts, Caleb Johnson, Jace Farrior and Jacob Hogan represented the student body and Ms. Erica Johnson and Mrs. Terina Atkins represented the teachers, while recently attending the Student Voice Institute hosted by the Arkansas Leadership Academy at the Rockefeller Institute located in Maumelle.

An event held in separate sessions, spanning over two days, students and teachers from across Arkansas gathered exploring how students can work with teachers to implement Student Voice in their schools. The goal of student voice is to create a collaborative environment where everyone is working together to better our students' education. It was said that Student Voice is not students complaining; it is students coming up with ideas and ways to work together to implement those ideas to help their school.

In the October session, the VHS representatives worked with others from schools such as Sheridan High School, Jacksonville middle and high Schools, Cedar Ridge middle and high Schools, East Poinsett County High School and Vilonia Freshman Academy to study the idea of Student Voice and how it could be implemented in their own respective schools.

Returning, the students shared the vision with VHS principal Mr. Sewell as well as the Vilonia High School Student Leadership Team (SLT). Through this collective vision, the SLT decided one of the first steps they needed to take was to establish a regular meeting time to explore ideas on a regular basis. After looking at the various schedules, they set the second Friday of every month, before school, as the meeting time allowing the majority of students to attend. They also discussed a need for the student body to understand mindset behind Student Voice. As Otts pointed out, "This is not a club. It’s a culture and everyone is invited and encouraged to participate."  

"We need to get the word out that everyone can be a leader,” Rappold said.  “It doesn't mean you have to stand up and speak at orientation in front of the whole school, but you can be a leader by attending school events and having a good attitude about school in general. That is what will change the culture of our school--positive participation."   

Students are our priority and we have students and teachers who want to work together with the administration to make our school the best it can be, not only for them, but for everyone involved, Ms. Johnson said.

In support, the SLT asked various teachers if they would be willing to allow students, in their classrooms, to take an anonymous survey about their class and the school in general. The survey asked students to rank the teacher on various aspects including willingness to help students, has the respect of the students, enforces rules fairly and allows the students to feel comfortable sharing ideas, etc. These results were then given to the teacher so he/she could see positive results from his/her teaching as well as any areas in need of improvement from the students' point of view.

Chase Lewis, SLT member, approached Mr. Sewell with an additional request—to form a research team to visit other schools and interview students, teachers and administrators at them to find new ideas or new ways to make improvements in the Vilonia School District. Lewis, along with Talyn Lawrence, Hogan, Farrier, and Rappold, visited Mt. Vernon-Enola and Riverview over Christmas break. They reported back to the SLT with the results of their interviews.

 "The research team to me is one of the most beneficial components of the Student Leadership Team we have,” Lewis said. “With the research team, we are not only bringing new ideas to our school, but these ideas are ideas that have worked at other schools. This is one of the most progress initiatives we have created at Vilonia High School since I’ve been here.”

The research team plans to visit more schools before the end of the school year.  Since learning about the student research team, other schools are now looking into creating their own teams to explore other schools.

When meeting for the second session in February, the schools reported back to each other what they had implemented in their schools so far, what worked, and what barriers they have encountered.

"Barriers are just that; they are just something we have to figure out how to get around or get over,” said Blaine Alexander. “We shouldn't just give up when faced with one.”

 Alexander is the leader of the Student Voice Institute. The purpose of these discussions was to assist schools in introducing new ideas to their own schools.

A quote from the movie, ‘Remember the Titans,’ Ms. Johnson said, “Attitude reflects leadership, and with student voice, all students can be leaders along with the teachers and administrators. It will be attitude of these leaders which will determine the culture of the school.”    

The VHS Student Voice participants will be meeting soon with Mr. Sewell to explore the next course of action to help implement Student Voice in our school.

“It will be a work in progress,” Mrs. Atkins said, “We most likely won’t have 100 percent buy-in, but if a movement starts and students, teachers and administrators see a change that makes our school even better, then it will grow until we have a culture that reflects Student Voice and student success.”