Tackling social inequity is hard work. Last year, Salem Public Schools took on this challenge by forming a partnership with the nonprofit organization Equity Imperative that includes feedback from students.
That partnership led to the Student Voice Project, an effort to amplify students’ concerns and help them take action to address these concerns.
“We’re getting trained as adults to be facilitators,” Joy Richmond-Smith, the City Connects Coordinator at Salem’s Saltonstall School, says. “District staff are being trained about equity and race and how they affect our students, as well as about the negative impact of implicit bias and institutional racism in schools.”
The training for facilitators includes the Youth Participatory Action Research (or YPAR) framework, which encourages, according to YPAR’s website, the creation of “positive youth and community development” based on “social justice principles.”
“In each middle school and high school,” Richmond-Smith adds, “we organized a student voice group that’s supported by an adult mentor.” And this year the program expanded into Salem’s elementary schools.
Initially, the focus was on first steps. Richmond-Smith and Jaleesa Tentindo, a school counselor, worked with Saltonstall middle school students to identify “a pressing issue at our school that they want to research and then try to come up with recommendations for our school to implement,” Richmond-Smith says.
“The issue they chose was the lack of consistent and meaningful dialogue about race and racism.”
This work is particularly important in Salem where nearly 60 percent of students are students of color, 45 percent are Hispanic, and more than 30 percent of students speak a first language that isn’t English.
Students interviewed teachers and other students, conducted research, and made recommendations that are being implemented this year.
One recommendation is to include student input in hiring decisions as part of a larger effort to diversify the teaching staff. Salem’s faculty is far less diverse than its student body. A Barr Foundation report found that only 12 percent of faculty were people of color.
Another recommendation is to provide teachers with support so they can be more effective in talking about race, racism, and racist incidents that occur at school. Students did an initial survey, and they are running focus groups with teachers to get more information about the support that these teachers need.
Middle school students are carrying out the third recommendation to talk to younger children in age-appropriate ways about race and racism. And another group of students are training to become peer mediators who can help adults facilitate restorative conversations among students.
The impressive work being done by Richmond-Smith and her students is an example of how City Connects not only supports students but encourages them to use their own skills and strengths to improve their schools and community.
In Salem, this effort ties into the school district’s commitment to equity and inclusion. As the district explains:
“We believe that the work to realize our goals as an anti-racist organization and promote justice in every element of our system must be owned and led by every individual. We are committed to establishing workstreams that ensure equitable access, opportunities, and game-changing outcomes for every child who attends the Salem Public Schools.
“We do not believe that we know all the answers of how to achieve this yet, but we must be determined to identify, iterate, and implement actions, policies, and practices that bring these commitments to life.”