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Student feedback adds invaluable insights to afterschool program evaluation

I had the opportunity to attend a webinar given by the Tamarack Institute where Karen Pittman, the co-founder, president and CEO of Forum on Youth Investment, was interviewed about afterschool and summer learning. Pittman gave us an anecdote about some programs that were having difficulty increasing student attendance.

Her team gave a map to the children in the neighborhood and asked them to highlight places they frequented. These children were in a community where crime, violence and death were prominent. The team was surprised to learn that the students would actually gather frequently at a funeral home in the neighborhood because of the connections they developed with the funeral home employees. The funeral home employees bonded with the children in the neighborhoods and even offered grief counseling to the students.

Pittman’s key message from that revelation was to always include the student’s voice, because they provide insight in ways that adults or other outsiders would not have. That story has stuck with me all these months—the student voice is both important and underutilized.

You can watch the full Tamarack Institute webinar below: 

Students want to be heard. For example, my colleagues went out and spoke to a high school class about education policy. They talked to the students about how we surveyed parents and teachers and people in the city to get their views on education.

One student asked, “Do you all ever survey students?”

The honest and unfortunate answer was “no,” but that response came with a lightbulb attached. As much as we discuss education policy, assessments, school grades, etc., it is easy to reduce a child to a test taker or an enrollment number for summer camp.

However, all of these decisions that are coming down from the top are affecting students directly. Students are retained if they don’t make a score that someone else sets. They are told which bathrooms they can and cannot use. But no one has truly asked them for their opinions or potential solutions.

Many of the decisions that are handed down to students are in line with the type of people we hope they will become, and many times we get it right. But as adults, we have the power to empower students to inform the decisions we make about them.

Going forward, I have made it my goal to be intentional about capturing students’ thoughts and feelings about different topics that affect them. I will be working closely with the Jacksonville Public Education Fund’s Community Mobilization team to ensure that we are attracting and engaging students, particularly in our upcoming Community Conversations event. There are other projects that I am working on focusing on  Afterschool and Summer Learning (ASL) and School Mental Health. In these projects, we have made the effort to include student surveys and focus groups for them to give us their honest feedback!

Some of the best and brightest solutions may come from students or at least spark some healthy conversation. This is their world, too. Don’t they deserve a say?