Student Voice Matters at Citywide Leadership Seminar

By Virginia Calistro
New Haven Public Schools Communications Intern
When it comes to implementing change in schools and communities, student voice is a powerful yet underutilized tool.
This was the message emphasized at the Citywide Student Leadership Seminar held this week at Gateway Community College. The event was organized Suzanne Lyons, who works in college and career readiness for the district, alongside by Yale Public Service Fellow Randy Goldson in an effort to both raise awareness of the power of student voice and build student capacity to lead effectively.  
“Students are entirely capable of shaping the discussion of subjects that directly affect their lives and future,” said Steven Pynn in his opening remarks. Pynn, a central office administrator, went on to compare students to previous underrepresented constituencies in American history and challenged the young leaders to demand their “place at the table” in the broader dialogue about school reform.
Pynn’s words fell upon a captive audience of roughly thirty diverse student leaders coming from a variety of formal and informal leadership roles in high schools across the city. Each emphasized his or her commitment to being heard by taking part in a “Photo Voice” session, where participants were photographed holding a message explaining why student voice was important.
“You have the best understanding of your own situation,” agreed key note speaker and creator of the Teaching Peace Initiative Fish Stark. Stark encouraged students to find issues that “kept them up at night” and then initiate the change they need to see.
“All you need is the audacity to believe in your own ideas,” encouraged Stark.
Superintendent Garth Harries was in attendance to meet all of the student leaders and personally remind them that their input is both desired and necessary.
“This seminar is just the beginning of a broader effort to recognize student voice,” commented Dr. Dolores Garcia-Blocker.
The extent of this effort is demonstrated by plans to offer two high school students, of either junior or senior standing, partial membership on the Board of Education. Although the high schoolers will not be voting, a seat at meetings will leave them in a better position to add student voice to the conversation about school reform.
To conclude the inaugural summit, trending on Twitter as “#203voicematters,” a panel of recent New Haven Public Schools graduates spoke to the students about voice, leadership and change.
“We’re looking to inspire leadership from within,” said Goldson, who hoped the team building exercises and critical self-assessments would arm students with the skills to effectively engage their peers, teachers, and administrators.
Four young difference makers from New Haven Academy are already endeavoring to influence hearts and minds in their school community. Each occupies a unique leadership role, from Junior Class President to leader of the Gay Straight Alliance, but discussed an ongoing collaboration among the groups to eradicate prejudice in the school.
“Bullying is not a big problem in our school but it still exists, so we knew we should do something to change that,” commented rising senior Janae McMillan.
With young leaders like McMillan ready to speak and the district willing to listen, New Haven is in an excellent position to build stronger schools and communities.