Sitting around a conference table adjacent to the principal’s office, nine juniors and seniors from a rural South Carolina county are talking about their dreams, aspirations, and the realities of navigating high school during a pandemic.
They talk about the stress of returning to class in person, the challenges of working at home virtually, the uncertainty caused by “not knowing what’s coming next.” They talk about the cliques in their school and how difficult it is to get classmates and teachers more engaged.
“There have been a lot of disconnects,” says Loudon Boulware, a senior at Fairfield Central High School in Winnsboro, South Carolina. “But now that everyone is bringing all of this to light, we know that we can make a big difference.”
Boulware and his classmates at this 775-student school, located about 30 miles north of Columbia, participated in a student voice project in the spring of 2021. The project, which is continuing and expanding this year, brought students, school district, and community leaders together to discuss youth mental health, school funding, and economic opportunities in the region.
Districts have taken a variety of approaches to keep students engaged, such as appointing representatives to the school board and surveys to get their perspectives on teaching and learning. A 2019 report from the Center for American Progress notes that “students have the greatest stake in their education but little to no say in how it is delivered. This lack of agency represents a lost opportunity to accelerate learning and prepare students for a world in which taking initiative and learning new skills are increasingly paramount to success.”
Giving students opportunities to share their perspectives and make their voices heard is increasingly important as districts navigate the tendrils of a pandemic that has increasingly put youth at risk—especially those in high-need areas such as Fairfield County, where almost 90 percent of students live in poverty.
“If you are working to create a more inclusive curriculum that prepares young people to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and initiators of their own learning, you have to listen and learn from them as well,” says Barnett Barry, senior research fellow for the Learning Policy Institute and founding director of Accelerator for Learning and Leadership for South Carolina (ALL4SC).
In the fall of 2019, Barry returned to the University of South Carolina to start ALL4SC, which he describes as an “outreach project” that supports “high-need school communities in partnership with parents, students, teachers, faith leaders, and business owners.” The plan, he says, is to build a system of “whole child and cradle-to-career education.”
Barry found a willing partner in Fairfield County Superintendent J.R. Green, who was intrigued by the prospect of a “research institution working with a school district to change the trajectory of young people in a rural community.” Even though most of its students are from low-income households, Green notes that Fairfield County’s schools have “relatively substantial means” thanks to the Dominion Energy nuclear facility, which provides the district with almost 60 percent of its local tax revenue.
“Our district is an anomaly,” says Green, now in his 10th year as superintendent. “We have a state-of-the-art career center, orchestra, dance, the culinary arts. People who come and visit our schools leave very surprised because we don’t look like a traditional high-poverty community.”
But, as Green notes, top-notch facilities and programs will get you nowhere unless students, families, and community leaders are engaged and working toward the same goal. And that has been a recurring issue in Fairfield, where only one-third of the district’s 2,930 students are proficient in reading, and 36 percent meet the standard in math. Both numbers are well below the state average.
“It is the collective responsibility of everyone to change the trajectory, not just of young people, but the entire community here,” Green says. “If you ask the average person here whose responsibility it is to maximize the potential of young people, folks here will say it’s the parents and the schools, but outside the parents and the schools, no one has a role. We’ve got to challenge that way of thinking.”
Barry and Green agreed to develop a broad plan that eventually will focus on whole-child education and community schooling, but first, they wanted to hear from students.
“Many of our students felt like unengaged, unempowered bystanders in their education, and that what they had to say would not affect the trajectory of what happened in this community,” Green says. “They thought it was up to the adults to figure out how to change the dynamics because they didn’t feel like they had the voice or the ability to do anything about it.”
Merrit Jones grew up in Lexington County, which borders Columbia and has five school districts. Her mother served one term on a school board, so she knew the struggles districts faced over funding. At the time, South Carolina was near the end of a 24-year lawsuit on how it funded rural and poor districts.
“I was in a Title 1 school, and then I switched districts in the same county and saw the funding disparities that existed,” Jones says. “The funding lawsuit made me question lots of things, so I started asking questions. Fortunately, I was in a school that gave me the flexibility to ask those types of questions.”
In 2015, Jones became active in Student Voice, a nonprofit organization that works in all 50 states to advocate for youth-driven solutions to education inequities. The organization, which started in 2012 as weekly Twitter chats with the hashtag #StuVoice, now has a $300,000 budget and is run by a team of 15 high school and college students.
“After graduation, I took a year off to hear students tell their stories,” says Jones, who became Student Voice’s executive director and now works as an adviser for the organization. “When you ask young people to think critically about their school experiences, you will find they have some powerful things to say that you may not have thought about.”
Jones, who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2021 and now is helping Barry at All4SC, has worked with school board associations in several states on ways to engage students better. She points to surveys showing the lack of engagement among many students, which can impede their opportunities for success after high school.
“Right now, you have an opportunity to capture some unique information because your current staff and students have the lived experience of teaching and learning in a pandemic,” she says. “We all have some type of school experience, but if you’re not in the classroom now, you don’t know what it is like to teach and work in these conditions. It’s so important to start this intergenerational dialogue so that young people feel heard and valued and respected.”
Photos of Fairfield Central High School Students by Glenn Cook
SPEAKING THEIR MINDS
Fairfield Central’s student voice project started as part of an Advanced Placement history course, with Jones and teaching intern Luke Harris leading the program. Nineteen students took part in the semester-long class, surveying their peers and participating in roundtable discussions with community members before a final presentation to Fairfield business leaders in June.
Tracey Whetstone, the school’s social worker, sat in on many of the sessions with students. The biggest takeaway, she says, is that “our kids have feelings and voices that in many ways we didn’t know existed.”
“Given everything that children, and adults for that matter, have experienced over the past couple of years with COVID, I think many of them have learned how to be resilient,” she says. “But what was really surprising to me is that some of the kids that we thought were OK are not OK.
We have to look at each child individually rather than taking things as a whole, and we have to be open to collaboration.”
Themes quickly emerged when the students started talking. Kylie Burns had mixed feelings about returning to the classroom for her junior year, while her classmate Kennedi Bates could not wait to put an end to virtual learning. Jacia Green and Aden Mobley, both juniors, wanted to see more information and mental health resources shared with students. Senior Jalen Adams and junior Luke Downs sought to learn how and why the school spends its money.
“A big part of it is just transparency,” says Adams, who plans to major in computer science and finance. “I don’t think there is a lack of opportunities in Fairfield. There are a lot of things that could be taken advantage of as long as our students have the information. We need to do a better job of telling them where their opportunities are, how to get to them, and how to take advantage of them.”
Mobley, a self-described “numbers person” and the son of a Fairfield elementary school teacher, says trust was lacking between students and staff. “When we did our survey, we learned many of our students were not necessarily happy about the mental health resources that were available to them,” he says. “Mostly, it was a lack of information, and it became obvious we needed to do something about that.”
Downs, who is looking at a career in law enforcement, says students also wanted dedicated time to study during the school day, so they don’t fall behind in their work. “We have things that are going on at home, and many of us work after school or have other types of activities, so having that time to stay caught up means something to us,” he says.
Initially, several students were worried about how adults would react to students speaking their minds, but most were pleasantly surprised.
“I know we’re teens, and some people think we should just sit and learn from the adults, but I think my opinions should be taken into consideration,” Burns says. “What was good about this is that they were giving us encouragement and were willing to listen. As much as we cared about the topics that were discussed, they cared just as much.”
Bates, a junior, says working with community leaders showed her the value of networking.
“I learned a lot just by talking and listening to others,” she says. “Everybody came to this with different perspectives. You can see the adults are interested in developing internships and opportunities for us, and the administrators are really interested in looking for solutions. As long as you have the right connections and aren’t afraid to speak up, I learned that you can make changes.”
LEARNING TO LISTEN
Tracie Swilley calls herself a “proud principal” who learns something new every day. Now in her ninth year at Fairfield Central, she also realizes that the “love I have for all of these children” does not translate unless they know she listens to their concerns.
“Over the past year, I’ve learned that I have to listen,” Swilley says. “I didn’t realize students were as stressed as they were about returning to school. As they started to open up, we saw that there was a lack of two-way communication. We had activities that adults knew about, but all of the kids didn’t, and we needed to change that.”
Based on the students’ recommendations, Swilley has made several changes this school year. Students, not just parents, can now download an app that promotes two-way communication. Design and marketing classes are creating posters and other resources on student mental health. The school is looking at personal finance classes and ways to increase internship opportunities. Schedules have been changed to give students time to do more homework during the school day.
“We’re no longer saying, ‘You’re a kid, so you can’t give me a good idea about this area,’ but instead working to be open and understanding about where they’re coming from and helping them to understand the rationale behind the decisions we make,” Swilley says.
Whetstone and Swilley say they walked away believers in the process.
“In many cases, especially in a rural community, a lot of them are just trying to make it day by day,” Whetstone says. “Some are not interested in economic development because they’re just trying to stay afloat, and it’s hard to be concerned about things you don’t know. Projects and initiatives give them hope that it’s possible for them to be successful.”
No matter how many things have changed, everyone in Fairfield County knows the student voice project needs to be broader and deeper. Working with students who want to be engaged in their academic, social, and emotional learning is the easy part. Getting all students as well as parents and community members to join in is a much more complex task.
“Our group was fairly small,” says Downs, the junior. “For this to work for everyone, we’ve got to become a bigger group of people who care and can work together to make a difference. We’ve got to get more students to participate. Nothing is instant. Consistent is what works. If we’re going to make changes that make a difference, we’ve got to be consistent.”