This fall, COVID cases have surged to highs not previously seen in Maine schools and, as a result, many feel a lack of control. To combat COVID, classrooms have been rearranged, Zoom meetings held and extra-curricular activities altered.

Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at [email protected]

Students’ social and emotional health has been significantly impacted. During times of uncertainty, it is more important than ever that we empower our students. We can begin by ensuring that their voices are heard.

Research indicates that students who believe they have a voice in school are seven times more likely to be academically motivated than students who do not believe they have a voice (Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations, 2016). “I have come to trust student voice as a powerful tool for school improvement, a liberating force for student engagement, and a crucial element in educating for participatory democracy” (Nelson Beaudoin, 2005).

In RSU 5, student voice takes on many forms, some more formal than others. Student voice in our youngest learners can be fostered by teaching them to understand different perspectives. In a recent kindergarten class at Morse Street School, our students debated whether the troll in “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” book was mean, ugly and scary, or sad and lonely. Students listened attentively to one another and, by the end of the discussion, some students changed their opinion of the troll. This is an example of how student voice begins.

For older students, there are more formal ways to elevate student voice. Four years ago, two student representatives to the RSU 5 School Board were added. They report on current happenings at the high school and have weighed in on such matters as returning to school five days a week. Additionally, each of our schools has active Civil Rights Teams that ensure we foster cultures of respect and inclusiveness. A student leadership team was created this year, which further elevates student voice at the high school. They will take on the important work of reviewing school policies such as detention practices and revising the dress code. This team adds another avenue for students to be heard in addition to the already existing student council, class officers, club leaders and athletic captains. Another new initiative to expand student voice is the creation of advisory student leaders, who will meet regularly and help to plan and facilitate advisory activities.

We recently considered canceling our homecoming dance due to the risk of COVID exposure. The high school administration met with student leaders to hear how we could continue the time-honored tradition of the homecoming dance while keeping everyone safe. Students came up with the idea of hosting the dance outside, wearing masks and increasing the number of chaperones. The stage is set for all students to be “footloose” and dance the night away!

These initiatives are strengthening the student voice in RSU 5. “There is no better engine to pull the train of school reform than the student voice, and once it picks up steam it is difficult to derail … ” (Beaudoin, 2006). Student voice is critical in developing healthy school cultures. In RSU 5, we are committed to lifting all voices.

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