By Nancy C. Rodriguez
They are usually on the receiving end of instruction, but last Tuesday a group of teenagers from around the state schooled Education Commissioner Terry Holliday on what it is like to be a high school student in Kentucky.
The students – members of the inaugural Next-Generation Student Council that was announced in January – left few topics untouched, moving seamlessly between discussing ways to make dual-credit courses more affordable and concerns about end-of-course exams to debating the merits of raising the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18.
“We’re really excited about you guys being here, and we’re looking forward to the feedback you’re going to give us,” Holliday told the 11-member council during its first meeting. “We want to hear what’s exciting to you about school and what’s not exciting.”
Holliday announced this past fall he was creating the council as a way to get student input on school issues and receive feedback on how state-level decisions are affecting students throughout Kentucky.
Students applied to be on the council, which was open to public school students in 10th through 12th grades. The inaugural council includes students who hail from all corners of the state, from Murray to Pikeville, and everywhere in between. They also represent diverse academic and demographic backgrounds as well as school sizes. This first group of students will serve during the 2011-12 school year, and those who are not graduating seniors may reapply to serve in the 2012-13 school year.
During last week’s meeting, the students met with Holliday several times and also spoke with KDE staff about issues like college- and career-readiness, the importance of Individual Learning Plans and school technology use. The students also made a trip to the Capitol, where they spent about an hour talking education with Senate Education Chairman Ken Winters, R-Murray, and House Education Chairman Carl Rollins, D-Midway.
While meeting with the lawmakers, several of the students talked about difficulties they and their teachers are having with the new Kentucky Core Academic Standards and end-of-course assessments.
“I’m a bad test-taker. If I have a bad day, I could do really badly on the test even if I know the material,” said Morgan Casto, a 10th grader at Russell High (Russell Independent).
Council member Steven “Hunter” Peay, an 11th grader at Butler County High, said he sees his teachers struggling to learn and teach the new material, and said they feel pressured to keep to move on to the next lesson, even when some students have not mastered what they just taught.
“Once you fall behind it’s hard to get caught back up,” Hunter said.
Rollins acknowledged the students’ concerns. “This is the most difficult year, we know, for teachers and for students,” he said. “It is a transitional year. None of us are surprised by that.”
Later, during a lunch meeting with the council, Holliday turned the discussion to teacher evaluations, asking the students if they thought they should have a say in them.
“I think our performance, how well we perform in the class, should be our voice on that,” Hunter said.
But Brittany Hughes, a 12th grader at Burgin High (Burgin Independent), questioned if it would be fair to judge teachers who have several remedial students on their tests.
“Scores are not always going to reflect what they are teaching,” she said.
Other students, like Forrest Logan VanWay, a 10th grader at Boone County High, expressed concern about the emphasis placed on testing. “From my perspective, we are not teaching the subject, we’re teaching to the test,” he said.
Students also debated whether the state should raise the compulsory student attendance age from 16 to 18. “What would be the negative?” asked Iman Ali, an 11th grader at Pikeville High (Pikeville Independent). “Obviously kids dropping out of school isn’t doing anyone any good.”
Hunter, however, noted that some students are “knuckle heads. They’re just trouble makers,” he said. “They just take away from my education.”
Cory Banta, a 12th grader at Bryan Station High (Fayette Co.), said the focus shouldn’t be on age, but rather why students don’t want to stay in school.
“I think what we need to do is find ways to get students more motivated,” he said.
Holliday was impressed with the students’ insights.
“You guys are terrific. You get right to it. You’re so insightful, so insightful,” he said.
The council is scheduled to hold a virtual meeting in March, where the members will likely talk more about ILPs, teacher evaluations and technology use in schools. In preparation for that upcoming meeting, each of the students was asked to survey 10 students in their schools about whether their parents have seen their ILPs and ask sophomores about their experience with Operation Preparation, a college and career mentoring program being held around the state March 12-16. The students also were asked to review a technology use and access survey for their respective school districts and give their thoughts on what the surveys showed.
“This is just the beginning,” Holliday said. “These students represent the ultimate goals of our state’s educational efforts. This is a very important group to me and a very important group to the future of Kentucky schools.”