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Student Voice Matters (And they say community counts)

I’ve been to a variety of graduations. There are my own (preschool, high school, college—I have fondest memories of preschool, as it ended with an award and cookies with juice), my brothers’, and those of my students. Each of these has featured names being read while (mostly) eager students received their diplomas. But the graduations of my former students have been different, and it isn’t because I had a vaguely comfortable seat and a different perspective. The graduation at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School (Parker, from here on out) is different because Parker is different. At Parker, student voice is important, and that isn’t just something that administrators and teachers say. Students believe their voices are essential, and the community fosters that belief. In one of the most notable and universal celebrations of high school, Parker makes sure its students have one more experience to realize and share the importance of their voices, because here, every student is invited to speak. Not every student does (at least to date) but the option exists for them, and about a quarter of the class of 2018 chose to take advantage of that opportunity.

I want to share with you some of what they said about their school experience. “I realized my mindset needed to change…I learned that I’m capable of doing hard work…I learned that I need to see the value in the work or I wasn’t going to do it.” -Riley Sanderson “I’ve learned how to work with who I am, instead of trying to become something I don’t know that I’ll ever be…Now, rather than try and fix something that’s wrong, I’m learning how to adapt to it. Parker has taught me to accept myself and find out what works for me, instead of trying to fit someone else’s mold or expectation. It has given me the space and the tools to reach that understanding, and I’m forever indebted.” -Phoebe von Conta “I was astounded. After all, this was the principal and here he was offering to help me get to class. And it wasn’t just him…it was the kids from my advisory, kids I didn’t even know, who helped push me to class. Seniors, who had no reason to interact with me, paused in the halls to help give me directions or to offer to carry my bag. One time, my whole [Arts & Humanities] class stopped and applauded for me when I managed to back my wheelchair into a classroom without help. I’d soon learn that this kindness is the norm of the school, and it’s just one of the many things that make Parker so special—it’s the community.” -Alicia Walsh “The old Aimee was known to be quiet and probably said close to one hundred words from kindergarten to sixth grade combined. She wasn’t capable of speaking up for herself, she didn’t know how to be herself…Within my six years at Parker, I’ve been given the opportunity to explore who I am. I am not that rainbow-tipped hair, neon-shirt wearing seventh grader that I once thought I was. Instead, I’m a strong, confident, outgoing, risk-taker, who still talks a little too much sometimes. Someone, who, at one time, was nearly impossible to find.” -Aimee Noonan “Never did I think that a few raindrops on my head while I walked through the Division Two hallway would be ‘good for the soul.’ Never did I think that waiting 25+ minutes for a single e-mail to send would be for the purpose of ‘building my patience.’ But never did I think I would leave home at 3:30pm just to return again at 8:30am the next morning. But never did I think I would leave one family in the afternoon and move back to the next after the bell released us. But never did I think that I’d have 67 new family members…Nowhere else have I been so pleasantly challenged to go out of the way to see what I can do for the person beside me, regardless of any prior relation to them…Nowhere else have I been more happy to walk into my school building rather than to walk out.” -Adam Basma I’ll close with just a few thoughts: 1) If you’d like to be inspired, I’d encourage you to watch their speeches. Click here for a link to Parker’s graduation. Go about 15 minutes in, and you’ll see their work. 2) Community matters. My own high school didn’t foster an overwhelming sense of community, and I feel incredibly fortunate that I found a group of women who are still my closest and best friends there. We created our own community, but I know I would have benefitted greatly from going to a school where building a thoughtful, inclusive community was highly valued. 3) School should be a place where you learn that you’re capable of doing hard work, where kindness is present, and where you learn that your voice matters. What better preparation is there for life? Image by Cathy Kennedy. Used with permission.


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