Art Rainwater's decade-long tenure as superintendent of Madison's schools has ended, and on balance he was fairly popular, at least among teachers, union leaders, school board members and the public. But there's one group whose affections he largely failed to win - the district's 25,000 students.
Nearly 800 high school students joined anti-Rainwater groups on Facebook last year. The main grievance: Rainwater never placed a high priority on listening to students' concerns and actively engaging them in efforts to address school issues. Creating an inclusive climate that empowers students to speak out, or even takes seriously those who do, is not one of Rainwater's legacies.
A case in point: When a class of local elementary school students wrote emails to district officials last year expressing their disappointment over a canceled field trip, the district responded by reprimanding their teacher. (See "The Danger of Teaching Democracy," 2/7/08.) Apparently, Rainwater didn't appreciate the teacher's efforts to give her students a little civics lesson.
That's not to say the district doesn't listen to students at all. Each year, students complete a school climate survey, which gathers their opinions on the fairness of school policies and the effectiveness of support services.
But if students want to share what's on their minds on their own terms? Forget it.
Early last year, when I was 15, I founded a district-wide initiative to engage high school young women in grassroots leadership. I envisioned bringing students together (outside of instructional time, of course) to discuss issues of importance and brainstorm solutions.
Without rejecting the proposal outright, school officials made it clear they weren't interested. And a district committee decided that participation in such a forum would require parental permission.
Meaningful student engagement treats youth as community stakeholders. It recognizes the validity of their opinions on education issues, and empowers them to suggest solutions. While this approach presents some challenges, it can yield tremendous benefits.
After spending 11 years as a student in Madison schools, I'm excited by the opportunity to move towards this model under our new superintendent, Dr. Daniel Nerad.
Nerad has an impressive background in innovative community engagement and consensus-building. As superintendent of the Green Bay school district, he emphasized community outreach efforts. He sought out citizens at churches, grocery stores and even farmers' markets to discuss education issues.
Perhaps Nerad can expand these creative outreach efforts in Madison to include the students whose daily lives are affected by district decisions. Indeed, wouldn't holding a series of listening sessions at several of the district's middle and high schools be a great way for Nerad to show students that he values their opinions, too?
Of course, Nerad need not stop there. If he is serious about including students in work to improve our schools, he would do well to make an even greater effort to include students' voices.
In Green Bay, Nerad convened a council of 15 teachers that met with him six times a year to discuss various issues. What about launching a council of 15 Madison students to provide input on closing the achievement gap, reenergizing the district's fine arts program, updating the thousands of antiquated textbooks currently in use, and other important issues?
Or perhaps Nerad could employ a simpler strategy by working to increase the representation of youth on school task forces, advancing students from the confines of tokenism to a position of shared power.
In May, the high school members of the Dane County Youth Board organized an impressive teen summit on the stark achievement gap between Madison's students of color and their white peers. Why not invite a few of them into the district-wide discussion on developing strategies to close the achievement gap?
Madison schools have become a national model on more than one occasion. Our vibrant school district has the potential to do so yet again by giving students the chance for authentic civic engagement. It's time to show kids that adults really are ready to listen.
Natalia Thompson is about to start her senior year at Madison's West High.