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Students say respect and relevance lead to better engagement in school

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Call it the three Rs of student engagement: respect, rigor, and relevance.

At the School Reform Commission meeting Monday evening, a group of high school students led more than 150 of their peers in a series of roundtable discussions intended to gather thoughts on what the District can do to keep its students motivated, challenged, and in school.

After the two-hour session, an upbeat Superintendent William Hite said that he had observed three demands consistently throughout the evening’s discussions: Respect the students. Provide them with rigorous experiences. Make learning relevant.

Many students expressed frustration with schools that failed to prepare them for the challenges that come after high school or in the working world.

“They fear facing Philly,” said one student from YouthBuild Charter School. “If teachers engage with students more and show them that they can do it, students will show resiliency and push forward to the next step and even further than that.”

Kadisha Alberga, a senior at Parkway Center City, cautioned students at her table not to assign unnecessary blame to teachers for unmotivated students.

“There’s only so much a teacher can do. If you want to do it, you want to do it,” said Alberga. “I think some students want it easy, in a way. How far do you want them to hold your hand?”

As the District experiences a funding shortage that has left many schools short of resources, many students felt they weren’t getting access to the types of rigorous opportunities that colleges look for, such as AP and honors courses, and extracurricular activities.

“You should be able to compete and apply to competitive schools, even if you don’t go to Central,” said one student.

Bahsir Matthews, one of the students chosen to facilitate a discussion on the role of adults, said he once viewed many adults with distrust. Some had discouraged him or prejudged him based on reputation or stereotypes, he said. That lack of respect led him to think that “at the end of the day, they were just concerned with getting their checks.”

But when he transferred to Sankofa Freedom Academy, a charter school, he said the staff showed a greater dedication to students than he had seen at his previous school.

“If a school staff can be a father or mother to a student, that’s how they can build a lot of trust. Then they’ll be able to come to them about anything.”

Hite said he repeatedly heard an appeal from students to “make the work relevant — make it real for us.” He cited one student who said his afterschool robotics program was more enjoyable than the entirety of the school day,

Alberga, the Parkway Center City senior, said she liked how her teacher taught her class the mythological story of Odysseus with an eye toward making it relevant to students today. “The teacher gives a modern version of it in our own way — that works for most students.”

After the meeting, many of the students said they appreciated the District’s effort to let students speak their minds and involve them in the process. But what matters to them is improvement, they said.

"They are making little baby steps, but they need to put on their big boy and big girl shoes and start making bigger steps,” said Cierra Mallette, a student at Edison High School and a member of Youth United for Change, a student activist group.

Hite said that notes summarizing feedback from the evening’s discussions would soon be posted on the District’s website.

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