By Mike Marsee
When the Next-Generation Student Advisory Council gathered for the first time this school year, it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to science and mathematics.
Only a few minutes into the council’s meeting last week, Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt steered the discussion toward areas that he said are critical to the future of Kentucky’s students.
Pruitt asked the students who met at the Capital Plaza Tower in Frankfort Nov. 5 about the types of classes they were taking and the teachers who lead those classes; he also shared some of his own experiences from his days as a chemistry teacher.
He wanted to know that the 11 students in the room — and the many others they represent — understand the importance of taking a variety of classes in science and mathematics.
“In the 21st century, to not be science and math literate is going to put us at a disadvantage globally, so kids have to have a good, solid foundation in science and math,” Pruitt said. “The importance of being scientifically, technologically literate in the 21st century is just critical.”
Pruitt and other officials from the Kentucky Department of Education met with the students in the first of four face-to-face and virtual meetings scheduled over the next six months. The Next-Generation Student Advisory Council is an 11-member group created to give students the chance to discuss how decisions made at the state level are affecting public school students throughout Kentucky and provide valuable feedback from a student perspective on critical issues impacting Kentucky students and schools.
“Listening to the voice of the students is the most important thing we do, because that’s who our main service is supposed to be for,” Pruitt said. “If we try to make any decisions in Frankfort without listening to what kids are saying about the system, we’re really doing them a disservice.”
The students were happy to share their opinions and ideas, which is just what Pruitt wanted in one of his first meetings with a group of students since taking over as commissioner Oct. 16.
“I wanted to learn their genuine and honest feelings about what their school experience has been like, and I think we got that,” he said. “They’ve not been shy at all, and it’s been great.”
The students also talked with KDE Associate Commissioner Rhonda Sims, who explained how assessment data is gathered and interpreted; and Associate Commissioner Amanda Ellis, who asked them questions about courses and teachers in their schools. Ellis started with mathematics, noting that Kentucky’s 8th-grade math scores slipped this year and 4th-grade scores held steady.
“You all have seen that scores and data aren’t the only thing, but I think it’s clear that our weakest area across the state and across the whole nation is mathematics,” Ellis said.
Emily Salamanca, a senior at Henry Clay High School (Fayette County), said she has seen that students in lower-level mathematics classes seem to be less interested in understanding the content than in simply passing the class. She said more emphasis should be placed on how the content can be applied to students’ lives.
“I think that there should be more of an overall trend toward an increased importance of math,” Salamanca said. “We shouldn’t think of it as, ‘Once you’ve done this, you’re good.’”
Kenzy Moore, a senior at Russell High School (Russell Independent), said teachers should be better prepared to send students from lower-level classes to advanced courses.
“One of the problems I see is that in our lower level math classes, the beginning math classes, the teachers are a lot less qualified than the calculus and the statistics teachers,” she said. “So a lot of times, by the time students get to those (upper-level) classes, they aren’t prepared.”
Deanie Pedigo, a Barren County High School senior who is in her third year on the advisory council, said she found her choice of math classes limited when she became an upperclassman because she already had taken much of what her school offers in that subject. She said she would like to be able to take the same classes that students in other nearby districts are taking.
“By the time you get to your senior year, you only have one choice on what you can take. Yes, it might help me somewhat, but if there’s another class that I could take that some schools offer that we don’t that could help me in my career later, I’d like to take that,” Pedigo said.
Wesley Wei, a junior at Boyle County High School, said he also would like more challenging course offerings.
“All the neighboring schools, other schools around the state have these classes and we don’t,” Wei said.
Pruitt said he was glad to see that the student council members were placing a premium on math and science courses.
“It was actually very encouraging to hear,” he said.