May 25, 2010

Racine Unified turns to students for ideas on improving schools

Racine Unified officials turned to an obvious, but often ignored, group on Tuesday for ideas on how to improve the area's public schools: students.

About 100 high school students were brought together at Gateway Technical College to discuss key issues facing the district and to brainstorm solutions to address problems such as engaging students in math and improving school safety.

The students represented all of the district's high schools and were nominated by teachers, counselors and principals. The group was racially and academically diverse. Some students were college-bound high-achievers, while others had a record of discipline problems and struggles in classes. The summit was designed to bring them all together to comment on how schools are run and what can be done to fix them.

Here's a list of ideas the 11 groups shared in PowerPoint presentations they created based on discussions in small groups:

  • Closer relationships with teachers. Students wanted teachers to be more available for questions and to show a greater interest in their lives outside of class. One group suggested teachers should be available by email. 
  • More study groups and opportunities to learn before or after school, or during free periods like lunch. If these programs do exist, more should be done to ensure students know they are available. 
  • Harder classes. Several groups actually mentioned this. They said even advanced classed were too easy and didn't challenge them. They want to be pushed and really learn. 
  • Teach everyone. It bothered some groups that some teachers ignored certain students or seemed to give up on them. They want to see teachers helping everyone.  
  • Consistency on classroom rules. Teachers can be lax one day and tough the next. One group said toward the end of the year teachers try to reel in students for things they've gotten away with all year. It shouldn't work that way. 
  • Progressive learning. One group said they felt math teachers rushed through material at the end of semesters to try and fit everything in, but left some students behind who didn't understand the lessons. It gets worse when students don't understand and are unable to finish their homework. Instead of helping them, teachers tend to penalize them for not finishing the assignment. 
  • College tours and planning are helpful in motivating students and helping them look ahead at their careers and lives. 
  • Online grades. A group asked for grades and assignments to be placed online so they could keep track of how they're doing in each class. 
  • Safety. One group got the biggest response in the afternoon when they suggested Park High School wasn't safe. Some in the audience disagreed that Park was unsafe, while others said more high schools were unsafe. 
  • Block scheduling. One group thought switching to 90-minute classes would help give teachers time to teach and students time to apply what they're learning with the teacher nearby. 
  • Students wanted more flexibility over their schedules. 
  • They were at something of loss on what to do about discipline. Some students act up in class specifically to get thrown out of class. Conferences and suspensions can help get students' attention, but laying out expectations early on and getting parents involved may also help. 
  • Student evaluations. One group suggested students evaluate teachers at the end of a class. 
  • Progress reports. A group suggested students are evaluated in different subject areas at the beginning and end of a class so teachers know where they're at and can help them make improvements. 
Following the Summit, Parker said he was impressed at how students, many who didn't know each other, came together and quickly jumped into meaningful discussions about Racine's schools. The students were divided into groups of nine and given about three hours to breakdown pre-assigned questions into ideas they could report back to the full group. 

"I'm amazed at how well they meshed," Parker said.

In his closing remarks to students. Superintendent James Shaw (right) said he was impressed students cared enough to take part in the summit. 

While he cautioned the students that not all of their ideas could be implemented, at least immediately, several were already being worked on. The district is upgrading its technology with 8,000 new computers this summer, and it's implementing a data warehouse to track students' test scores across grade levels. These, and other improvements, are designed to help students connect with learning at an early age and carry it through the rest of their lives. 

"I hope you see education and learning is never done," Shaw told the students. "Being around you young people is a learning experience for me."