Tell CPS students you want to hear their opinions — and you will get ‘em.
Cincinnati Public Schools’ annual Student Leadership Conference, held in November at Mayerson Academy, was designed to get high school students excited about leadership and to elicit their feedback about school issues. The event brought together 255 students representing all CPS high schools, with each school sending three students per grade.
Empowering students to take an active interest in their education is a key component of CPS' My Tomorrow high school initiative, launch in August 2014 and aimed at preparing all students for success after graduation.
At the conference, CPS staff and an outside facilitation team worked with the students in small grade-level groups to draw out students’ thoughts on a range of issues.
“I like to be heard, to know they actually care,” said Ne’Onni Napier, a 10th-grader at Woodward Career Technical High School who transferred to CPS at the beginning of this school year. “I’ve never experienced anyone wanting to listen to what a kid was saying.”
Yenetta Harper, CPS’ director of innovation and the event’s coordinator, said the feedback from last year’s event — the first — was critical in the creation and implementation of CPS’ new high school initiative, My Tomorrow, which launched in August 2014.
Both years, she has given no criteria for the selection of students to participate in the conference.
“If you are a citizen of the school, you can tell me something important about that school,” Harper said.
The event had three parts, and at each stage, students were supported with staff from CPS and the facilitation team. First, students listened to a keynote address by Javier Sanchez, a motivational speaker with Youth to Youth International.
Sanchez spoke about, “how to be a better leader in their school and in life,” Harper said. “It was about empowerment and how to make better choices to become a school leader.”
In the grade-level listening groups, students were invited to provide feedback about issues in their schools such as how schools were providing college and career readiness, the quality of extracurricular activities offered, what they would change at their schools, what would engage students better in their educations, and what could improve their school’s overall culture and atmosphere.
These conversations were recorded and will be turned into a report by Harper.
“We can see patterns within the schools,” she said. “We might see one school as having so many more opportunities than another, but when you delve deeper, students can tell you that their school has high participation and interest in the activities they do have.”
Jayda Rogers, a 9th-grader at Shroder High School, thought the opportunity to share experiences with students from other high schools was the best part of the conference.
“I liked hearing that things that are happening in my school also happen in other high schools,” said Jayda, a member of Shroder’s Student Council.
Jayda and other students in her group said that teachers who took the time to build relationships and understand their students as individuals were the ones she found most helpful in encouraging her academically and overcoming learning obstacles.
“I think it’s very important that teachers get to know their students and each and every one of their skills and abilities, so they can hold them responsible for what they are or aren’t able to do,” Jayda said. “And, students need to understand their teachers are human, too.”
Finally, students came back together to eat lunch, which yielded unexpected insights.
“It was this really nice networking opportunity,” Harper said. “We brought them all together, and because of their experience in the listening groups, you saw them eating in grade-level groups rather than with the school they came with.”
The event inspired students to advocate for expanding the role of students in decision-making at their own schools.
“This was a good way to get a general opinion about what’s happening in schools, but it would be better if it were more specific,” said Jose Pinto, an 8th-grader at Walnut Hills High School. “They should do something like this at each school.”
Harper plans on running the event again — and even expanding the participation from each school.
“I would like to see a busload of students from each school next year,” she said. “If you have 40 kids from each school, that’s a big critical mass than can effect some change.”