Student empowerment is not a new idea in education. Sometimes, though, its practical application doesn’t evolve beyond cookie-cutter solutions that address the problem as superficially as crash diet plans and New Year’s resolutions.
The best schools, the charter schools that earn Building Hope Impact Awards, demonstrate that they understand the Grand Canyon-sized void between student engagement and student empowerment.
Engagement takes students along for the ride. Empowerment puts them behind the wheel. Every day. All year long.
“Student buy-in is the most critical asset a teacher and administrator can have,” said Shakira Petit, Interim CEO at Education Reform Now and a member of the Student Empowerment Selection Committee.
“Students can be counted upon to share valuable information to improve school community outcomes. The student-teacher partnership mitigates issues, increases trust, and encourages the student to participate fully in all parts of the academic program.”
Not surprisingly, student empowerment occurs most often in schools when teachers overcome fears connected to rigid beliefs about classroom control. Even less surprisingly, those fears among successful teachers often abate in direct correlation to the support of forward-thinking school administrators.
The model for student empowerment clearly is a setting based on a holistic approach that not only recognizes critical differences between students in the classroom but also addresses their disparate home and cultural environments.
In the best charter schools, creating that setting isn’t a late-onset singular initiative as much as it is part of the school’s founding mission statement.
“Student Empowerment can look different in different schools,” said Chad Carr, Chief of Staff for Give Something Back, a national public charity providing career-based planning and more services to students who face barriers to success. He is also a member of the Selection Committee for Student Empowerment.
So much of student empowerment is about understanding and then providing what the student needs to be able to learn and gain agency in their life.
“For some, that might mean safe passage to and from school. It could mean knowing they have a place to live and have plenty to eat before they focus on learning. For others it might mean finding an educational program that plays to their strengths so they can learn at the best pace for them.”
One such program, a safe passage initiative called “Man The Block” has blossomed at Washington D.C.’s Richard Wright Public Charter School, the 2022 Building Hope Student Empowerment Award winner.
Dr. Marco Clark, CEO at Richard Wright, called the award a validation of years of hard work and a “morale booster for students, staff and families.”
The “Man The Block” program had staff and volunteers lining the sidewalks outside Richard Wright campus and offering encouragement to students as they left school. It was just one answer to the question the best charter schools continuously ask: “What should student empowerment look like?”
“Student empowerment is seeing that students have an opportunity in every capacity of the school,” Dr. Clark said. “In the classroom, they’re able to challenge teachers on work assignments and it’s received with a breath of fresh air rather than discipline because they’re coming (to the discussion) with information. We’re teaching them how to work through that.
From the perspective of student-led groups like the honor society and student government, they’re invited to the table to sit down with the heads of the organization to voice concerns or provide opportunities and ideas. They’re part of the full conversation as it affects students in the overall community.”
Students aren’t only brought into the conversation in such diverse arenas as curriculum, sports and entertainment activities, they’re offered the opportunity to lead those discussions. By doing so, they learn the challenging consequences of decision-making and, in the best circumstances, cultivate the confidence to own the outcome of those decisions.
Clark underscores the importance: “They realize they matter. That their voice matters. And that they are a real intricate part of their own learning.”
Skye-Ali Johnson, a student ambassador at Richard Wright who spoke at the school’s commencement in 2022, credits student empowerment as a major reason why she became a first-generation college student.
“When students are allowed to sit at the table with adults rooted in important decision-making, students are able to realize just how powerful our voices are,” said Johnson, a George Mason University freshman studying Forensic Science with a concentration in Biology as preparation for medical school.
“This opens the doors for new profound influential conversations to advocate for themselves and their communities. Our voices are no longer limited and have the power (to make) a difference.”
Student empowerment can happen in any classroom, public or charter, but charter schools are often better positioned to tailor educational and social experiences to the needs of their students.
In fact, it’s expected. By the businesses that invest in them. By school leaders and educators. And, eventually, by students themselves.
“First and foremost, charter schools allow for some competition in the marketplace,” Carr said. “Competition spurs innovation and creativity and when healthy, brings everyone up to a higher level.
“This empowers parents and students to choose the option that is best for them. Not all students learn alike or have the same needs and our students need more choice to help make sure they are able to maximize their potential.”
The finalists for the 2023 Student Empowerment Award are:
Exploration High School in Minneapolis, MN
Galileo School for Gifted Learning Skyway in Sanford, FL
Life Learning Academy in San Francisco, CA