CHAPEL HILL - They are questioning, critical and savvy to some of the most pressing educational issues.
They are high school students in the Superintendent’s Advisory Council, and anyone who thinks this group is a meaningless student government club for overachievers better think again.
At a recent monthly meeting, the group of 18 discussed candidly with Superintendent Tom Forcella such matters as drawbacks the district’s online course software, concerns about the method of determining class rank, and what teaching methods best suit certain subjects.
“We’re really effective here, because we all see the value of sharing our opinions and we’re all respectful of each other,” said member Katherine Marshall, a Carrboro High senior. “We don’t judge each other.”
The council has already had an influence on the district's next Long Range Plan, to be released this spring, school district spokesman Jeff Nash said.
“The students shared their thoughts on a variety of important subjects including the need for more higher-order thinking skills and less rote instruction,” he said. “Their input was recently shared with the district's principals as we move toward creating the new plan.”
The students say Forcella engages them on equal footing: asking questions, encouraging discussion, and taking seriously what he hears.
Alex Werden, a senior at Chapel Hill High, serves on the school’s improvement team and is involved in student government but says he values his work on the council.
“To be able to talk face to face with the superintendent seems like an avenue you wouldn’t get uness you called and set up an appointment,” he said.Not just the best
They are not all the best students, and they didn’t win a popularity contest.
Their applications for council membership were vetted by former communications director Stephanie Knott. The council is made up of senior and junior representatives from Carrboro, Chapel Hill, East Chapel Hill high schools and Phoenix Academy.
Meeting in a conference room at Lincoln Center on Oct. 8 while their peers were in class, the group sat around tables arranged in a square, and talked.
The superintendent solicited recommendations for the new Northside Elementary set to open next year and moderated a discussion with Allison Schulhof, a Duke senior working for the School Research Partnership to get their take on how to encourage input from other students.
“One of our concerns has been, how do we give the student voice?” Forcella told the group. “We have your voices here, but you are a very small segment of the population.”
The responses were varied and informed; considerate, intelligent and truthful. Not everyone spoke, and some spoke a lot. There was no side-chatter. No hands were raised; anyone who chose to speak was listened to and respected.
Here’s a sampling of what student members had to say:
• On the Student Advisory Council:
“It’s kind of a way to give the students a way to talk directly with our superintendent instead of taking our concerns to our teachers, who may or probably won’t talk to our principal, who in turn might, but probably wouldn’t, take it to the superintendent.”
• On A.P. Classes:
“I’m taking AP classes to get into college. If I was actually taking classes that I enjoyed, I would be getting straight A’s.”
“I’m taking some classes just to get into college.”
• On Virtual Public School:
“It’s really odd in online classes, if you have a question, you have to email it. And they don’t always answer right back. You’re stuck with this question in the back of your head.”
“Maybe the current VPS platform is not a good platform.”
• On how best to elicit student input:
“Meet with the Minority Student Achievement Network.”
“High school students are the most apathetic people on the planet. You’re missing hundreds of students who are not going to get involved in a club.”
“No matter who you are, if your teacher’s there when you’re asking the questions, your answers will change.”
“We’re really good at lying to adults.”
“If you and I are having this discussion alone, I don’t know if I’d give you as much information as I can with this group.”