Student Empowerment: Opening the Door for Students to Lead the Way

Webster’s dictionary has a good definition of empowered – having the knowledge, confidence, means or ability to do things or make decisions for oneself – but they haven’t gotten around to putting the word “student” in front of that.

But some charter schools have and Building Hope has identified a bumper crop of schools who are leading the way in student empowerment.

“Student empowerment is about letting the kids set the tone for where they are and what they need to be successful,” said Chad Carr, Chairman of the Board at giveback, a nonprofit focused on student empowerment for teenagers most at risk of not graduating from high school. His nonprofit provides mentoring and grants to succeed in college, starting as early as sixth grade.

Successful schools understand that when students are involved in their own education, they are vested and the chances for success in academics and in life increase exponentially. Bringing students into the conversation about curriculum, sports and entertainment activities, fundraising, and many other aspects of running a school gives them a personal stake in their community’s success and a distinct feeling that they have a voice.

Public charter schools are community schools, who have more autonomy to respond to the ever-changing needs of students. “That is what charter schools are really good at,” Carr said. “Giving children the tools to effectively engage and communicate, as well as the tools to critically assess problems is key to an empowered student. Being supported to safely express themselves and their ideas is the foundation for success.”

There is no magic formula for increasing student empowerment, just the intent of the charter school leaders to ask, and respond to, the questions that most engage their students:

· What are the things that are interesting to you?

· What are the things that are pertinent to your life?

· What needs do you have, that need to be met?

Sometimes the answers they receive are tough to hear. Sometimes, the issue isn’t about a student’s Math or English homework. It’s will they be getting fed that day? Or do they have a bed to sleep in that night? Or will Mom or Dad be around at all?

There is context to learning. It’s hard to ask a student to pay attention to today’s lesson if they are hungry. It’s impossible to focus on what a gerund is if they’re worried about shootings in their neighborhood, or in their own school. Social-Emotional support isn’t a luxury or an overstep into the parental realm. It is a critical component of creating a safe and suitable context for learning.

“We have this expectation that all students will meet the educator at the appropriate place, not just physically, but in terms of how they prepare for class, their ability to manage their behavior and do the work presented to them, and that’s just not the case,” Carr said.

The best schools make a commitment to put students first at all times. They allow students to take an active role in their education, in the school, and ideally in the surrounding community. When empowered, student voices are not only heard, they are acted upon.

As a member of the Selection Committee for the First Annual Building Hope IMPACT Student Empowerment grants, Carr says that is exactly what the finalists for the grants, and so many other charter schools across the country are providing. Here are three examples of charter schools who succeed at empowering their students.

Richard Wright Public Charter School was an early and eager adopter of student empowerment and traces its eye-popping effectiveness to a thorough embrace of one essential quality – trust.

Richard Wright PCS demonstrates faith in young people to exercise proper stewardship of their educational journeys, so long as they navigate within the academy’s three Ls: Limits, Lessons, and Love.

Trust begins at the entrance to the school, located in an office building in southwest Washington D.C., around the corner from L’Enfant Plaza. Alone among schools in D.C., no metal detectors confront students as they enter. Administrators don’t insist on clear backpacks. Staff doesn’t search students.

“We don’t go through that,” says Dr. Marco Clark, Wright’s Founder and CEO. “We show our students from the beginning that we trust you, we believe in you, we love you, we care about you, and this is your school. This is your organization; let’s take care of it.”

Through its ambassador program, Wright PCS includes students in policy discussions, fundraiser planning, budget decisions, roundtable conferences with visitors, and how to make learning more effective.

The goal, Clark says, is to educate a legion of pathfinders and builders, creators of legacies that future generations of students can follow and build upon.

“The energy that we put in is always about having our students making a solid impact,” Clark says. “In everything, we’ve got to leave an imprint. When we walk away, we leave a footprint that somebody else can follow. … It’s about being bridge builders for individuals.”

Class of 2022 keynote speaker (and George Mason University-bound) Skye-Ali Johnson likened herself to a seed planted in Wright’s garden. Over five years, through attentive watering and cultivation, she says, she grew from shy sprig to a boisterous bundle of energy intent on the Next Big Thing.

Administration and faculty “are always willing to tell you that your voice is going to make an impact in this world,” Johnson says. Through them she learned, “You should never mute yourself because what you have to say is valuable.”

Richard Wright PCS’s variety of student empowerment has practical aspects as well. The students learned to raise their voice, and the collegiate world responded. The 75 members of the Class of 2022 earned $4.7 million in scholarships, Clark says.

At Palm Beach School for Autism, student empowerment is about giving a voice to students who may find it difficult to engage successfully in social or work environments and helping them transition to a productive life when they leave the school.

“Empowering our students means teaching them how to have a voice,” said Executive Director Ann Eisenberg, who also founded the school. “We are the editors of their stories, and it is our vision to give them tools to change their story.

“The perception is that people with autism have no value and can’t contribute successfully to their communities and to a job. We are changing that story.”

Eisenberg found out the hard way just how little support and how few educational opportunities were available for autistic children when her 18-month-old son was diagnosed in the early 1990s.

Her family faced a set of challenges that millions of other families were dealing with, so Eisenberg went to work on the problem. At first, she worked as an advocate, explaining the need to school and government officials. Eventually, she took advantage of new charter school resources, and founded the Palm Beach School for Autism.

Twenty-five years later, the 42,500-square-foot school serves nearly 400 students on the autism spectrum in five separate programs: preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school and high school graduates through age 22.

In other words, support at every stage of development.

“We teach our young adults how to change perceptions through empowerment,” Eisenberg said. “We teach the skills of advocacy and self-esteem, not just in the classroom, but out in the real world.”

The crown jewel in the school’s program is “Project Next,” a program that helps graduates with job skills to carry into the real world.

“We teach how to shop, how to dress, how to balance a checkbook,” Eisenberg said. “If we change people’s perspective, we cause the effect!”

The valedictorian at this year’s graduation told her fellow students that “autism doesn’t define you” as a way to inspire her fellow students to be inspired, to be empowered to use their voices to affect change.

Palm Beach School for Autism students not only serve valuable roles in local business ventures, but they’ve created their own cottage industry with a gift-box business. 100% of proceeds go to fund programs at the school. These students are not only paving the way for their own successful entrepreneurship goals, but also for all the students who come to call Palm Beach School for Autism home.

At Prospect Hill Academy, empowering students is at the very heart of what the school since it was founded in 1996 by parents looking to improve their children’s educational experience and college prospects.

“We have worked so very hard, and we put our students at the center of everything we do,” CEO and head of school Dr. Angela Allen said. “Every child has a personal relationship with the adults here, so when there is an issue, we know the child well enough to problem-solve together and work towards a positive solution. I’m just ecstatic that someone noticed what we do.”

With campuses in Cambridge and Somerville, Mass., Prospect Hill Academy’s student body is overwhelmingly “Black and Brown,” Allen said. “Nearly all our students come from historically underserved households, and we strive to ensure that they are not only academically prepared but have the social and emotional skills to succeed in college and life.”

Many of the school’s students come from homes where English is not spoken or is a secondary language. In a recent kindergarten class of 82 students, 25 different languages were represented. To bring such varied cultures together to form one cohesive and successful school culture is no small task.

“We have a robust English language learners’ program,” Allen said. “And while students may not speak English when joining us, most are fluent at the upper elementary grades.”

Under Allen’s leadership, the school has also focused on building a robust STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum to ensure its students are fully prepared to pursue STEM majors in college. 95% of students go on to four-year colleges. 95%.

One recent graduate just completed her Ph.D. in engineering. Another became the first Haitian to be named Miss Massachusetts. At Prospect Hill, students learn how to be empowered to impact the direction of their futures.

Prospect Hill Academy’s whole-student approach includes what Allen called “restorative education.” When students exhibit challenging behaviors, they are rarely suspended or expelled from school. Instead, they are guided to repair broken trust and relationships and/or any damage done, whether it is physical, emotional, or to the group as a whole.

“We don’t suspend students because we believe in the power of restorative education,” Allen said. “It empowers students to recognize the harm they have done to themselves, to others and to the community.”

Each one of these featured schools empowers students in their own way. Their impact on the families they serve and local communities is significant, but the impact on each student who feels valued, heard, and supported is immeasurable.

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William Fay

Bill Fay is a freelance writer supplying content for the communication outlets Building Hope uses to promote and expand charter school programs in the U.S. Bill started his career as a sports writer for the Tampa Tribune and Associated Press. He has written about Super Bowls, NBA Finals and college football, basketball and baseball championships. He has turned his attention to more serious subjects like public transportation, personal finance and now, education. He welcomes opportunities to learn more from the charter school audience and become a voice for their community.