When it comes to strategic planning, school district leaders know they must involve all stakeholder groups from the beginning. Though they are arguably the most important stakeholder group, students are sometimes overlooked in the planning process.

But now, especially because the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires school systems to factor nonacademic indicators such as student engagement into their accountability plans, many school districts are going directly to students and encouraging them to share their honest opinions about their educational experiences.

Many school leaders are finding that when they listen to student voice, student engagement and achievement improves. Dr. Michael Daria, superintendent of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa City Schools (TCS), said his district used feedback from a student survey to inform planning and instructional processes.

District leaders knew they wanted to stay true to their mission of serving all students, but they also wanted to know more about those students, their experiences, and how they felt the district was truly serving them.

“Our goal is always all students, but we’re a district where all students are not highly successful,” Daria said during a K12 Insight webinar on student voice. “Part of this work was to make sure the decisions we’re making for our students are wise decisions and that they’re meaningful for students. We wanted to affirm where we are with student engagement–what does it mean to be a student in the district, what is that experience, and does that experience match the experience we believe we’re providing for our students?”

And in order to do that, they had to go directly to the source–the students themselves.

(Next page: How the district turned student voice into new policies)

“We have a really strong vision for where we want to go as a school system,” Daria said. “We’re adults making decisions for our children. We had a missing voice at the table–we represent students, but we didn’t necessarily have their voice at the table. We wanted to find ways to have student voice at our decision table on a consistent basis, and also use it as a data point.”

Because the district conducted a student engagement survey, district leaders could analyze cognitive, social and emotional engagement to better understand where schools can improve and what they’re doing well.

The results revealed that students wanted the freedom to be more creative during school, and they wanted more stimulating discussions around lessons and concepts. They also wanted more links between how classroom lessons related to the real world.

The survey also showed low extracurricular participation.

“That bothered us. We took a result and turned it into something that we now measure as part of our strategic plan,” Daria said. “Now we have baseline data for participation in all our athletic and extracurricular activities, which now informs decisions we make for resources.”

Daria and his team immediately began creating strategies to improve the district’s lowest-scoring areas.

“It’s one thing to do a teacher or principal observation and say that you observed students not being engaged in the classroom discussions,” Daria said. “It’s another thing to have a data point to support that. When you look at closing the gap between real student experiences and staff perception, now we have data to start a discussion. [The survey results] move the discussion away from subjective to objective. The survey makes the discussions more precise.”

About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. When she isn't wrangling her two children, Laura enjoys running, photography, home improvement, and rooting for the Terps. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura http://twitter.com/eSN_Laura