Interviewed by Michael Telek

Institute for Learning

The research is out there. Countless studies have confirmed to us an obvious truth, student achievement and engagement increases when students have more ownership of their school.

It’s a radical idea, perhaps even an intimidating one, to hand over the authority that’s been in control of the school system for so long. However, by amplifying student voice, you are aiding these growing minds by providing meaningful experiences that will support lifelong learning.

Take a look at our partners Syracuse City Schools. 

At the helm is Superintendent Jaime Alicea. He is riding off to retirement at the end of the school year after dedicating his entire 39-year career to the district. Alicea got his start in the classroom as an elementary teaching assistant in 1983, working his way up to superintendent in 2016. Once given the responsibility of supporting and supervising Syracuse’s 19 schools, he introduced the Superintendent’s Student Cabinet.

“[Alicea] is amazing in the fact that he is building what he’s doing here in the district on student voice,” said Tara Jennings, Assistant Executive Director of Secondary School. “He takes the time to meet with all stakeholders.” 

Along with the Student Cabinet, there is also the Superintendent’s Parent Council plus a Superintendent’s Teacher Advisory Council. The student cabinet consists of students from each of the five high schools. They meet with the Superintendent and district chiefs (Chief of Food Service, Chief of Transportation, Chief Operations Officer, etc.) throughout the year to discuss and learn about the initiatives and programs in the district.

It’s a win-win for everyone. Students get answers to their pressing questions, leadership gains valuable insight and input from the students they serve, and the two-sides are building bonds and connections. 

“We all want students to be successful, but we’re not going to guess and assume how a student can be successful without hearing from them first,” said Jennings. “If nobody asks you, (‘Hey did you like what we placed in your building?’ ‘Do you like the structure of the day?’ ‘Do you like the teacher support that exists?’) those different things, it’s not going to help in terms of students’ success and setting them up to be productive members of the community.”

Graduation rates at Syracuse are on the rise, reaching a new record high last year. 77% of students of the class of 2021 earned a high school diploma after four years, compared to 71% for the class of 2020, and 65% for the class of 2019.  

These results are drawing the attention of education experts, including Syracuse University’s professor of mathematics education Joanna Masingila, also a former dean at the university. She told WAER, the school district’s focus on professional development and student problem solving is likely the right formula to lasting academic benefits.

“The information about the graduation rate among English language learners…that was phenomenal that it rose nearly 20% from the previous year. So, that shows to me that there is a systematic and sustained effort in really providing support to teachers and professional development and with everybody working for student success,” said Masingila. 

For teachers looking to engage in this kind of work, Jennings’ biggest piece of advice is to make sure the student cabinet reflects the student body. It should not just be the top of the class, it should be anybody interested in making their voice heard. By inviting these change-makers, leadership must not only actively listen, but also offer explanations as to why or why not the change is possible. 

“If you don’t follow through, it’s not going to be taken seriously. That’s one of the things that I really admire about the superintendent. When he does hear something from students, there’s some action that always follows. I don’t think you can find a student in this district who would say, after speaking with the superintendent and asking for something, that there wasn’t a follow through,” said Jennings.