Gwinnett teen: Georgia school policies need greater student input

A Gwinnett high school senior says few students are given the opportunity to participate in the paltry student groups offered by school districts, and most of these opportunities are little more than performative showpieces with no influence on educational policy.

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A Gwinnett high school senior says few students are given the opportunity to participate in the paltry student groups offered by school districts, and most of these opportunities are little more than performative showpieces with no influence on educational policy.

Valedictorian says more students should be on committees that influence classroom

In a guest column, a senior at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology urges schools and districts to seek more student input on how schools operate and what is taught. Samad Hakani is the high school’s valedictorian and is considering Harvard, MIT and Yale University for college next year.

Last year, Hakani won a first-place prize in the physical science category during the 59th annual National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. Hakani is planning to major in physics and minor in economics. He became interested in education policy ever since the switch to digital learning amid the pandemic.

By Samad Hakani

“Do you have any clue what’s going on?”

“Why do we even need to learn this?”

“One day on minority history? Really?”

These are the questions echoed by my peers across the country. Students in K-12 are the beneficiaries of the education school districts provide. Yet, they are almost never consulted for their opinion on the knowledge standards they’re required to learn.

Few students are given the opportunity to participate in the paltry student groups offered by school districts. Most of these opportunities are little more than performative showpieces with no influence on educational policy.

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Samad Hakani is the valedictorian at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy photo

Samad Hakani is the valedictorian at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy photo

Combined ShapeCaption
Samad Hakani is the valedictorian at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology. (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

To help students with their transition into an increasingly meritocratic workforce, we must offer students a seat at the table to better understand their needs and reactions to the education they receive.

The most striking example of the lack of student voices in education policy became evident during the pandemic. A study by NWEA found that Black, Latino and Native American students had declines in standardized test scores of around 15% during the pandemic. Although digital learning has allowed us to feel safer, Zoom lessons and asynchronous instruction are not equitable modes of schooling.

However, the discussion regarding how schools were to be opened was contained entirely in the political arena. Who asked the students who were left behind what they thought of digital learning?

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Pediatricians with opposing views offered advice, and parents spewed ad hominem attacks at school board meetings. But where were the voices of students who were barely hanging on? Certainly not in local school councils, where students in Georgia hold no representation. (Georgia law requires every school to have a school council made up largely of parents elected from within the school community. The council serves as an advisory group to the principal. The law allows councils to decide whether to expand to include students. The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology doesn’t have students on its council.)

While Gwinnett County Public Schools has made great strides in student representation through the diversity, equity, and inclusion committees and the new Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, these changes are not enough.

Notwithstanding the issues regarding the medium of education during the pandemic, the district is faced with issues in the content delivered as well.

Take, for example, the divisive debate surrounding critical race theory in education. Georgia‘s governor and other political leaders have taken a hardline stance against CRT, so many teachers now feel their hands are tied when including discussions on race relations. The Harvard Kennedy School reported that 25% of parents were against the idea of civics education, a number higher when CRT was mentioned.

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The denial of topical civics education to students who are so politically engaged, especially through social media, makes little sense. Gwinnett’s Instructional Resources Review Committee application did not even have an option for students to apply. How can we expect students to engage with their curriculum when district leaders refuse to engage with them?

It’s simple: hear our voices and hear them now.

Student councils and student government organizations may help plan school events, but they have little say in school policy. By allowing students to join local school councils, we can gain a better sense of how students view the future of their school and help inform policy decisions that maximize student satisfaction.

Many school improvement surveys that the district sends out don’t have a student option. Even when they do, they are not advertised to students. When a minority of parents can sway district messaging on topics like CRT, but a majority of students can barely get their voices heard, something is fundamentally wrong.

We can and must properly advertise these surveys to students so that we not only hear student voices but hear diverse student voices.

Lastly, parent and community member committees influence curriculum and district policy decisions that impact student life. It only makes sense to include students on these committees to gain a better understanding of how Gwinnett County can offer a world-class education that meets the expectations of parents, teachers and, most importantly, students.