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Student VOICE creates teaching tool

The district-wide Springfield Public Schools Student VOICE program (Voicing Opinions to Initiate Change Everywhere) has been an important component of the district's equity team since 2008.

The Student VOICE program is comprised of a diverse group of student representatives from each high school – 8 each from the larger schools and 4 each from the smaller schools – plus adult allies from each. Students come together monthly both to learn and to discuss building-specific topics around topics such as race, privilege and oppression.

“Individual student unions are common, but our district-wide model is very unique,” says Alyssa Dodds, a district-level instructional coach who is the de facto leader of the Student VOICE group. Students are frequently asked to share their stories, or the model, or both. For example, the group has been asked to present at the Oregon Leadership Network (OLN) conference for the last few years. <Watch the 2012 group on YouTube.>

Culturally Responsive Curriculum Guide This year, the group took their voice a step farther by creating a culturally responsive teaching guide. The guide, which was presented to the School Board at its May 14th meeting, is designed to assist the district's Equity Cadre in planning professional development for the schools.

“We are excited that the group chose to come together to create this culturally responsive teaching guide about how to build trust and rapport in a classroom, key vocabulary, sample lessons,” says Dodds. A grant from the Springfield Education Foundation covered printing costs, and the guide is in already in demand by statewide organizations.

The guide opens with a quote by Conor Mcgregor: "The more you seek uncomfortable, the more you become comfortable." The handbook, explains the opening statement, is a guide to help "monitor and oversee intellectual conversations around deep topics that are normally hard to talk about....This is a guide to help educate and have students hear other ideas, along with encouragement to have discourse in the classroom."

The guide includes a glossary of key terms, illustrating for example the difference between the terms equality (treating everyone the same) and equity (giving everyone what they need to be successful). It also includes suggested lesson plans as well as warm-up activities.

The student VOICE model is also receiving national attention. Dodds was one of just 30 teachers across the nation – and the only one from the West Coast – whose proposal to present to the National Partnership for Educational Access (NPEA) conference in New Orleans in April was accepted.

The focus of the conference was on supporting underserved students on their paths toward college. This year’s theme is “Standing Together in a Changing Landscape: A Call to Action,” in which Dodds’s presentation on “Elevating Student Voice” fit nicely among presentations on high school culture, tips to avoid bias for higher ed officials, helping low-performing students with the college application process, encouraging critical thinking, and more.

“Listening to students IS equity work,” says Dodds. “School is compulsory, they have to be there. The least we can do is make sure they are heard.”

With presenters from a wide variety of education-oriented organizations and prestigious higher ed institutions, Dodds was in tall company.

“I was excited to share our model with the group, and also to learn from this powerful group of presenters and attendees and bring information back to our own students and the cadre,” said Dodds. Also on the itinerary was a school visit, and Dodds welcomed the opportunity to visit New Orleans’ highly diverse schools.

“At first glance, our schools might appear very different,” she says. “But the equity issues they face are actually surprisingly similar.”
“I am humbled and excited,” says Dodds. “No matter what your background or identity is, inviting students to the table is more than token representation – it’s a key to elevating student voice."

The Student VOICE program is one component of the district's Equity Cadre, which is finding new life thanks to the enthusiastic support of the superintendent and the school board, with representation for all schools, the Brattain House and several district-level departments.
“People throw around the word ‘equity’ quite a bit,” says Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith. “But we take it pretty seriously. To us, equity in education means that individual circumstances such as gender, ethnic origin or family background are not obstacles to achieving one’s educational potential. We obviously are not there yet. The so-called ‘achievement gap’ is widely acknowledged.”

In Springfield in 2017, for example, 50% of students with disabilities graduated on time, 40% of African-American students, and 31% of migrant students, compared to 70% of students overall.

To begin discussions on how to reach that goal, the district’s Diversity and Equity Cadre was originated in 2008, but has fluctuated in composition and vision over the years as grant funds have fluctuated.

“I’m so pleased that we are now in a place where our board and our cabinet are openly supportive and overtly speaking about equity,” says Dodds, who has emerged as one of the cadre’s leaders alongside Briggs Principal Jeff Mathers. “We are on the precipice of something really good.”

With training and support from the National Equity Project to help frame its goals, the cadre has settled in to make action plans in two distinct directions: 1) to design ongoing professional development and 2) to recruit and retain diverse staff. Detailed action plans are expected to be in place by the end of the year.

Dodds acknowledges that equity training takes time, sometimes years of transition, “but we are gaining momentum,” she says. She notes that Cadre openings still exist for several elementary schools, and that the ultimate goal is to create equity teams at each school, using a “train the trainer” model for the cadre itself and for administrators.

“Positions in the Cadre are open to any staff member,” Dodds notes. “Anyone interested can speak with their principal.” Cadre meetings are quarterly, with the subgroups meeting monthly to develop the action plans.

The Student VOICE culturally responsive teaching guide will be used to inform the Cadre's professional development plan for the coming year.

“Diversity and Inclusion: Building Equity in Oregon’s Classrooms,” by Genevieve J. Long,, September 18, 2012.