Empowering students, empowering change in school

Kim Manning Ursetta, NBCT shares ways to empower students in this third blog for the Teacher-Powered Schools Roundtable.

Imagine a culture where students are empowered to make positive change.  As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” At the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA) in the Denver Public Schools, our student council is encouraged to create change that impacts their own lives, as well as their classrooms, school, and community.

MSLA is a teacher-powered school, and our teachers are encouraged to create innovation that contributes to a positive culture and climate.

As a school with the word “Leadership” in its name, we focus daily on creating leadership opportunities and grooming leadership skills in our students.

All classrooms have a fifteen-minute leadership block that is spent developing these skills, and we also have an elected student council that represents our classrooms in kindergarten through fifth grade.

When MSLA opened in 2008, I began our student council in order to teach democratic principles, community service, leadership skills, and school pride. In my research, I found that most elementary school student councils focus primarily on fundraising through a school store. Most ignore the important leadership skills and student empowerment that can be harnessed by elementary-aged children. Over the years, MSLA’s student council has focused on representative leadership by learning about the branches of government and the responsibilities of elected officials. We have taken field trips to the capitol and the mayor’s office, and we have even held forums with our state representative and city councilman.

Our student council representatives are elected by their classroom peers, and take their roles seriously! We meet every Wednesday for forty-five minutes during “Passion Areas,” a time when students can learn about a topic of their choosing that excites them. In addition to making decisions about school spirit days, we identify changes that we want to make in our school and community, and create an action plan to address them. For example, students wanted to “make the school beautiful” by adding artwork in the hallways and exterior of the building.

MSLA was fortunate to receive an “Outreach to Teach” grant from the National Education Association, and their dream was realized! Our students worked with our art teacher to design and paint murals that spanned the length of the building outside, creating a welcoming and student-centered environment for our school. In addition, the students wanted an electronic display monitor mounted in our lobby so that student accomplishments, work, and events could be displayed for all to see. Finding ways to recognize our students and show pride in our school has changed our school culture tremendously!

Bullying was another issue that students raised. Students were concerned, especially in the upper grades, about name calling and friends not getting along. Together, we brainstormed ways to positively address this important issue.  Our students voted on creating a “Kindness Week,” where students could recognize each other for doing something kind. Recognizing the goodness in others gave students a new appreciation for treating each other well. Students then wrote the kind person’s name on a star, and our hall was shining with good examples!

At Thanksgiving time, our students grew concerned about the homeless in our city. Homelessness has been a concern in Denver, and there were often homeless people in the neighborhood, as well as news stories that students had seen on television.  Grabbing this “teachable opportunity,” our student council sprang into action and held a food and warm clothing drive. We donated the items to a neighborhood food bank. The pride in our students’ eyes was amazing when the food bank staff came to collect the donations.

While I have only given you a few examples, our students know that they are empowered to solve problems, and they take great pride in their abilities to affect change. We take pride in our student-centered environment, from planning Career Day to touring the Colorado House of Representatives to solving real-world problems in our community. I challenge all teachers to find ways to teach and nurture leadership skills from an early age. We know that our 21st century learners will be expected to be the next problem solvers, and create innovations that do not yet exist. By jump starting these skills at an early age, our students will thrive in tomorrow’s world. Our MSLA students ARE “the change”,” and they positively impact the lives of others every day!

Kim Manning Ursetta is a National Board Certified Teacher, founding staff member at the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, and former President of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.