Listening to Students’ Voices

In the short time I have been here in New Hanover County, I have met with many groups. These include community groups, church groups, civic organizations, teachers and many others. I felt it was time to meet with one group in particular whose voice is often not heard and that is the students’ voices. To this end, I convened a group of student leaders from all of our high schools and middle schools. They had many interesting and frank things to say about our school system.

There were several trends that emerged from the discussion with the students. One was the issue of transitioning from one school level to another. At each transition, the students gain more autonomy and have to become more self-reliant. Time management becomes a bigger issue, the pace becomes faster and the expectations increase. One area in which the schools need to improve is how we help students with this transition. This means identifying students who need help sooner and being more proactive in how we assimilate students into the school.

In the area of instructional delivery, the students said that lecture was still the predominate method of delivery. They all said technology was used in the school but that much of it was teacher centered and not student centered. They commented they often used technology more at the elementary level than at the secondary level. All of the students said they use technology more at home than at school. There were several programs mentioned that are exceptions to this such as the Lyceum Program at New Hanover High School and the Mosely Performance Learning Center.

When asked about their teachers, they identified three traits that were common among those that they consider the best. These are: the ability to build relationships, strong content knowledge and enthusiasm. Conversely, for the teachers that are not strong, they listed several common traits including being unprepared and unwilling to relate to students. William Daggett is an educational speaker who often refers to the three R’s of education: rigor, relevance and relationships. I think our students, without realizing it, struck the same cord as Daggett. They also reiterated a point I often make to principals. Students have to have a connection with an adult in the building in order to be successful.

In terms of safety, all of the students said they feel safe at school. They talked about bullying, but it was obvious this was more of a middle school issue than a high school issue.

Finally, they talked about expectations and how we need to expect more from our students. They said we need to challenge students to get beyond the idea that “just passing is fine.” They challenged the school system to focus on excellence and not just graduating. They also talked about the budget challenges and how we need to focus on academics over athletics.

For me, this was great input and I will use this, along with all of the other information I have gathered over the last eight months, to help shape our direction as we move forward. This in many ways reaffirmed my belief that we must focus on what happens in the classroom and that good instruction is critical to our students’ success. It also reaffirmed my belief that we must work to put technology into the hands of students and work to engage them in their education.

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