Posts Tagged Children’s Voice

Give Students a Voice So They Can Improve Their Own School

Published by — Working on a system to help troubled students stay in school, but be accountable to the community.


Regina Winkfield, Principal of E-Cubed Academy in Providence, went into a minor tailspin when district budget cuts eliminated her Student Resource Officer (SRO).  Of course, SROs are a double-edged sword.  As police officers, carrying guns, they’re sworn to arrest anyone engaged in illegal doings, including fighting.  SROs contributed to America’s soaring suspension and expulsion rates.  But even if her SRO wasn’t a great solution, Winkfield wondered how she’d cope with the rough student behavior besetting her urban high school minus that help.

The answer to that question turned out to be the kids themselves.  But not according to any intentional strategy.  While learning about civic engagement and advocacy, E-Cubed students found their “voice.”  As Junior Roxanne says, “everyone is getting along better because we have more voice now.  We’re empowered to talk to the adults.”

About four years ago, an opportunity quietly emerged.  Two Brown University students, Scott Warren and Anna Ninan, invented what is now the national organization Generation Citizen (GC).  Distressed by young people’s bad rap for disengagement from their communities and from political life in general, the civic-minded pair had an idea: teach teens how governments make decisions by helping them work on their own community or social issues.  They recruited college-student volunteers, called “Democracy Coaches,” to weave civics lessons into discussions of what specific community improvement could be accomplished and how.

Twice a week, a Democracy Coach worked in John Healy’s history class.

The City of Providence had never painted crosswalks on the busy streets surrounding the relatively-new school building.  The school community had complained for years.  Crosswalks were a clear, modest ask.  With instruction, students understood the relevant powers that be and managed to guilt the City into doing its duty.

Winkfield rolls her eyes musing that kids accomplished what adults had failed to do, and not for want of trying.  That day, watching those workers paint white lines, a light lit for her.  Supporting students’ voice in practical matters not only got things done, but got kids engaged.  “After all,” she says gesturing dramatically at the school’s mission statement, “we’re supposed to be a student-centered community.”

In the fall of 2013, she dropped hints to students about tackling their high suspension rate.  The kids’ research found that in 2011-2012, their small school of fewer than 400 students had nearly 300 suspensions, or an average of 1.65 suspensions every day – the third highest rate in the district.

I spoke with a group of these newly-engaged citizens about their accomplishments.  Now a University of Rhode Island student, Garren Jansezian took time off his spring break to crow with his younger colleagues about their impact on the school.  “We wanted to know what the implications were of those suspensions.  Was there a cycle of delinquency?  Were the problems of home being carried into the school?  We wanted to work on a system that would help [troubled] students stay in school, but be accountable to themselves and the community.”

Furthermore, after surveying their fellow students, they found that many had been suspended, mostly for petty vandalism, class disruptions, or tardiness.  Really?

Surely there were the alternatives.

The Democracy Coach gave them articles about other schools using restorative justice and peer mediation programs.  The students settled on starting a peer jury system designed to interrupt the zero-tolerance approach enshrined in the district’s Code of Conduct.  They developed a research paper, a process and several forms.

With their respectful voices and advocacy skills, they sold the idea to the principal, the faculty, and their fellow students.  They got the green light, but more impressively, 30 students applied to be peer jurors.

Angela, now a senior, took one of the first cases.  “(The student) had talked back to a teacher.  We all knew he’d done what he’d done.  Guilt was already determined.  But then the student was allowed to tell his side of the story.  We determined that the offense was not so severe that he should go to Ms. Winkfield for suspension.  Then we told him what he had to do to make it right.  At the end he said thank you.  I liked helping my peers not get suspended.”

In another case, a kid who trashed the bathroom avoided suspension by working with the janitor to get it cleaned up.  Yes, he was reluctant and resentful at first, but sucked it up and let himself be held accountable.  As Jansezian says, “Second chances are powerful things.”

Winfield concludes, “We needed a paradigm shift.  It’s easy to suspend a student, but it’s a lot harder to change a mindset.  For the students, it’s not about snitching, it’s about working together.”

Diana, a senior, says, “My mindset changed.  I look at people who do bad things over and over again, people I used to think of as bad.  Now I think, what’s happening to them that they’re getting in trouble?”

Fatoumata, a Junior, says:  “Voice is everything.  No matter how small, your voice has a deep meaning.”

For the record, they’ve only had one fight this year and a handful of suspensions.  With great pleasure, the students I spoke with took full credit for this minor miracle.  The adults beamed at them.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Children and Youth Voices are a Wealth of Information

Published by — Part 5 of 5 on Leeds’ efforts to become a Child-Friendly City.  (Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4)

Last November, the Lord Mayor and Mayoress of Leeds, England invited 10 sixth-graders, 10 and 11-year-olds, to tea at their home.  Annually, for the last 10 years, the Leeds City Council has invited all the city’s “year 6” students to compete to be elected, after a fashion, to become the Leeds Child Mayor.  At that tea the adult Mayor, who is himself a City Councilman elected by his Council peers, was honoring the finalists for the position and announcing the winner of this year’s election: Charlotte Williams, pictured above.

In the past, the Child Mayor election was a learning exercise in civic engagemen leading to a largely ceremonial position.  But in 2011, as part of its work to become a Child-Friendly City (CFC), Leeds surveyed their youth and children asking what it was they wanted from their city government.  CFCs highly value children and youth “voice.”  The survey results were boiled down to “12 Wishes” that include such desires as (#9) having more good jobs and training opportunities for youth and (#8) schools that address obstacles preventing all kids from “engaging in and enjoying learning.”  In 2012 the Wishes changed the eligibility for Mayor.  Sixth-graders now write a manifesto up to 400 words on how he or she, as Mayor, would accomplish some aspect of one Wish.

Charlotte addressed Wish #1:  “Children and young people can make safe journeys and easily travel around the city.”  Her winning essay, Life Cycle of Leeds, promises to promote cycling by developing more bike paths and a city bike-share program.

But here’s the beautiful part:  relevant members of the City Council and their staff are assigned to work with the Child Mayor to realize the goals.  They heard the kids and are committing City resources to improving their world.

Children’s voice is real.

Giving children a say in what affects them is a value held dear by both Child-Friendly Cities and Restorative Practices, the back-stage techniques that help get the loftier CFC goals accomplished.  This column series has looked at both initiatives quite closely, but hasn’t yet highlighted that youth voice is where the two initiatives intersect.  Children’s voice is the vortex of Leeds’ work.

Certainly the Children’s Wishes are a very public effort to hear kids.  But Family Group Conferencing (FGC), a Restorative technique used in child-welfare cases, also invites the perceptions and opinions of the kids in the families involved.  FGC’s success lies specifically in having the members of the family speak for themselves.  Normally professionals decide where to place children whose parents can no longer engage in proper parenting (drugs, mentally illness, abuse).  In FGC the extended family expresses their solutions, as do the highly-trained professionals.  But the statistical odds of children thriving in a new placement go up significantly if the kids are also consulted.  What do they want?  What do they think would work best?  Often they know tons about the situation that no professional could.

Under any circumstance where the children themselves will be affected, they should have the right to be heard, taken seriously, and when necessary, held accountable for their actions or statements.  When age-appropriate, children and youth should be at the table in their own Individual Education Plan meetings (for special education).  If the professionals state their goals — improved behavior, certain academic goals — how does the kid think such goals might be met?  Kids won’t always have great ideas, but sometimes their solutions will be brilliant.

Children are not final decision-makers.  Hear them anyway.  Schools, parks-and-recreation departments, and transportation offices would be more successful in their own efforts if they ask the opinions of their young clients and when possible, work jointly on problems and solutions with them.

Kids are a fund of useful information which we ignore to our peril.

It will take time for Leeds’ kids to trust that they’re actually being heard.  Their Wish #11 is:  “Children and young people express their views, feel heard and are actively involved in decisions that affect their lives — this is what we mean by ‘participation’.”

But Leeds is working on including children’s opinions in every aspect of the city’s inner workings that has to do with them — schools, transportation, workforce development.  Young voices can be creative and highly useful on boards and committees, especially as they get used to adults expecting to hear their thoughts.  What Charlotte Williams wants for her city and herself is a fine goal.  Hopefully she and the City Council will noticeably improve bike transportation.  Children and adults alike will benefit.

Yes, for a year Charlotte also gets to be part of the pomp the British do so well.  But more importantly, the City’s children will see their and her ideas being taken seriously by municipal bureaucrats.  It should be so everywhere.  Kudos to the City of Leeds.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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