Listening for the Fullness of the Student Experience

October 27, 2022
Group of students laughing together

“How do we allow our students to be their true, authentic selves?”

That’s the question on the mind of Grandview School District’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, Jose Rivera, who is at the forefront of intentionally listening to student stories and experiences to guide leadership practices. This work of centering student experience was started in Grandview during the 2019-20 school year, using tools created by the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), and continues to this day.

“In order for us to do that, we need to honor their lived experiences, their languages, their cultures, their ethnicities, their sexual orientations, their gender identities…everything that makes them who they are needs to be valued and uplifted,” continues Rivera.

While CEL works with school leaders across the country, their work with student experience in central Washington's Grandview School District, located in the Yakima Valley, is proving first-hand how leveraging student voice and belonging can create more equitable leadership practices and educational systems with improved outcomes for all students.

Working with school and district leaders in the Yakima Valley

CEL’s work in the Yakima Valley spans back to its inception in 2001. Formerly the Lower Valley Superintendent Network, the South Central Washington Instructional Improvement Network was established by local superintendents and Education Service District 105 and is facilitated by CEL as a network of district and school leaders that share learning around instructional leadership and best practices.

“It was a desert in Washington state,” says Kevin Chase, superintendent of Educational Service District 105. “There wasn’t a lot of system-wide instructional support coming out of any university, especially in the Yakima Valley. To have CEL available was a big thing for us. Even to this day, I can’t point to an institution in this state that does the work that CEL does. It has been a breath of fresh air for 20 years."

To have CEL available was a big thing for us. Even to this day, I can't point to an institution in this state that does the work that CEL does.

It’s within that network that Grandview School District started working with CEL, specifically using the center’s Student Experience Story Guide, one of the many learning tools and frameworks CEL has developed to help guide and inform school leadership practices. “Working with CEL, they took their work around equity to a deeper level in elevating student voice,” says Henry Strom, superintendent of Grandview School District. “That really caught our attention here in Grandview.”

“CEL was founded on a deep sense of equity, social justice and racial justice. From the onset, CEL has always been focused on helping leaders in schools and district central offices to develop the expertise and the skills they need to lead for equity,” says Max Silverman, executive director of CEL. “We have committed to working in ways that center students, and help leaders center students, and we’ve found that the field has the research but doesn’t have the tools to enact the research. So, that’s what CEL does. We take what researchers have said make a difference and create the tools and professional learning for leaders to actually center students in their own professional growth.”

CEL bridges research and practice through leadership-focused frameworks, professional learning services and partnerships with school system leaders. Their work started with K-12 districts in Washington state and has expanded over time to impact central office leaders, school leaders, instructional coaches and teacher leaders in school systems across the United States.

Asking the right questions

One of the many ways CEL is centering students and their experiences, is through the Student Experience Story Guide, a tool that strengthens how leaders actively listen to students and empowers students to tell their stories about their school experiences. This Story Guide was designed with the help of students to support leaders in understanding that when they’re talking to students, they are intentionally seeking their stories, not just trying to validate what adults want to hear.

The tool helps leaders ask simple questions like, “Who are the heroes and who are the villains at school?” or prompts students with open-ended statements like “Tell me about a good day at school” or “Tell me about a bad day at school.” When presented in this way, it gives K-12 students the opportunity and freedom to talk about their experiences and helps leaders understand their own biases while listening to student stories.

“Just the fact that we’re asking kids, I think is a momentous step, because a lot of the time we do things to people and to kids, but when we give them voice and choice, they’re empowered,” says Grandview’s Rivera. “We don’t just collect the data, we use the data to make decisions.”

Grandview School District worked with students to better align CEL’s Student Experience Story Guide to the Grandview student population and their needs by adjusting the questions and prompts based on student feedback, as well as explain to students how their responses would be used. “Once students feel safe and they feel that we’re going to do something with their stories, they’ll be themselves,” says Rivera.

Grandview even created student summits and invited students who participated in the listening sessions to analyze the responses and asked them “What comes to mind?” “What are you noticing?” “What are you wondering?” which led to fruitful conversations between students and leadership.

The stories that students share express the fullness of their identities and that's not something you can get from a survey.

“The stories that students share express the fullness of their identities and that’s not something you can get from a survey,” says CEL’s Silverman. “Behind every piece of data, there’s a deeper story. It’s only through the stories that you understand the fullness of each data point.” Silverman also says that this work is “more than just holding a forum to listen to students and families – it’s about having a practice that allows for hearing complex stories, being curious beyond just numbers and data and creating systems for meaningful change. That is really difficult but impactful work.”

Not only does listening to student stories and their experiences instigate change, but it also guides change and helps leaders understand, much differently from research, what needs to happen in their schools or school systems.

“When you read from research, for example, that students who don’t have a sense of belonging in your schools don’t do as well as students who have a sense of belonging, that is helpful,” says Silverman. “But when leaders talk to students and hear what it feels like to not belong and to hear the barriers that schools and school systems have in place that prevent students from belonging, leaders act upon that more readily and more appropriately than if they were just acting on research alone. By centering students and their experiences, it creates an authentic context for leadership and a critical lens into what’s happening.”

Fostering student belonging in Grandview School District

“Initially when we proposed the Student Experience Story Guide questions to our administration team, they said that the questions needed to be more specific,” says Rivera. “CEL really guided us around not asking the questions you already know the answers to. Students are really good at discerning what you want to hear, but when you pose a question that is opened ended with no clear answer, it allows students the opportunity to be their authentic selves and share their truths transparently and honestly.”

With a student population of about 93% Latinx students, 30% English learners, 10% migrant students and 84% low income in the 2021-22 school year, Grandview leadership was intentional about meeting with students from all different backgrounds and experiences.

“CEL guided us around having an equity lens in this work, making sure we had an accurate representation of our student body, not just asking our students in leadership positions who are traditionally the most popular or well-resourced,” says Rivera. “Let’s talk to our ELL students, let’s talk to our homeless students, let’s talk to our migrant students…we were intentional about hearing all voices and perspectives of our student body which was really powerful.”

One major takeaway from their first year of student conversations was a consistent theme around bullying. This included many examples of in-person, cyber and adult-to-student bullying. These conversations provided the necessary and eye-opening data for Grandview leadership to place a greater focus on their culture of belonging and honoring kids’ identities and dignity.

During these conversations about bullying, cell phones were coming up a lot for students which prompted Grandview district leadership and the school board to revise their telecommunications policy. They worked with administrators, principals, parents and the community to modify their policy to ensure that all cell phones across the system should not be seen or heard on school grounds. “Some students said that they wear their hoods or masks because they don’t want to be photographed at school by their peers and put on social media,” says Rivera. “If we hadn’t asked kids, that wouldn’t have come to light unless it was through the discipline route.”

We really doubled down on developing a culture of belonging through dignity and an understanding that belonging comes before achievement.

“We really doubled down on developing a culture of belonging through dignity and an understanding that belonging comes before achievement,” says Rivera, “We really want to focus on the social-emotional aspects of learning and creating safe environments for students to be their authentic selves and honoring students’ identity, genius and brilliance every day.” Modifying their telecommunications policy was just one step toward making students feel safe at school. And, based on student feedback, it’s working. Grandview is seeing fewer instances of bullying, especially with cell phones, than in previous years.

During their conversations with high school students, they also noticed a recurring theme around the return to the classroom after COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Students were questioning why they had to return to the classroom when they could accomplish the same tasks at home. Some students even mentioned that it felt like they were still participating virtually, just in-person, because all their work was on their laptops. However, other students felt the opposite and liked working remotely and getting their work done with less interaction. That prompted district leadership to have conversations with principals and instructional coaches to work with educators about finding the right balance of computer work and educator and peer-to-peer interaction. “There’s power in asking the end user in education – our students,” says Rivera.

Not only do students have a better sense of belonging at school, but academic outcomes have improved as well. In the 2018-19 school year, the four-year graduation rate was 85.3%. In the 2020-21 school year, that number increased to 93.7%. Grandview is also seeing steady growth in their ELA and math proficiency scores, especially for their Hispanic/Latinx students. While COVID-19 and remote learning caused a dip in these scores state and nationwide, district leadership is confident they’ll continue to improve outcomes for all students.

“In education, we’ve tried to fit everyone into a one-size-fits-all box and they simply don’t fit in it. It doesn’t work,” says Rivera “It’s about getting to know that unique learner, the individual student and honoring their brilliance, genius and lived experiences. If we can do that for every kid, we can get a lot of kids across the finish line.”

Grandview district leadership’s next step is to start working with principals to have these regular conversations with their students and step back and observe the different school communities and the changes being made because of these student stories. As they prepare for school leaders to take on this important work, Grandview district leadership remains committed to creating school environments where every student feels like they belong.

“When the University of Washington is affirming your work, it’s very gratifying. That helps to motivate me, to take more risks, to be a little bolder,” says superintendent Strom. “I appreciate their continuing push for public education, envisioning where we’re going and what kids need.”

Source, graduation rate data: Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction Grandview School District Report Card


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