Lydia Ato is starting her senior year at Tartan High School in the St. Paul surburb of Oakdale. She’s Nigerian American and last year, she said, she wasn’t as excited about school as she wanted to be. She said it felt like she was just “going through the motions.”
When she heard an announcement inviting students interested in social justice and racial equity to join the youth leadership council, she jumped at the chance.
“I go through school, I go through my six hours and I wasn't getting that conversation in the classroom,” Ato said. “I felt like this was this extracurricular activity that created a space where … we could talk about racial and cultural differences."
But the group wasn’t just about talking. It was also about systematically taking on issues that affected students.
An adviser introduced them to a system of qualitative and quantitative research meant to help them identify problems at their school and discover solutions. The group designed a series of survey questions, conducted research and came up with data to present to their school leaders.
For Ato, it was a validating and empowering experience. She was able to trace her disconnected feelings at school to a very real lack of diverse representation in the curriculum she was being taught.
“Who I was wasn't being seen in what was taught to me. My identity — I wasn't seeing that in the curriculum,” Ato said. “Students know what they’re talking about … the data showed that what we were saying was true.”
‘They are far more brilliant’
Lydia's experience is exactly what North St. Paul district superintendent Christine Tucci-Osorio thinks is a key component of fighting racism in schools.
"We need to trust students to tell us what they really think and feel and offer their true ideas and suggestions. They are far more brilliant than we often give kids credit for," Tucci-Osorio said.
Several years ago, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights identified Tucci-Osorio's district and dozens of others as having discipline disparities. A study conducted by MDHR found students of color make up one-third of Minnesota's K-12 population, yet received two-thirds of all suspensions and expulsions.
These disparities concerned Tucci-Osorio, and she began working with MDHR to address them.
"Racist incidents are usually a symptom of a bigger problem, and so the most important way we go about it is not reactionary, but proactive," Tucci-Osorio said.
Tucci-Osorio sent her staff to bias training. She focused on suspension and expulsion data. She also insisted on hiring teachers and leaders of color.
“Whenever any topics come up at a leadership level, we're able to turn toward our colleagues around the table and around our school district who have diverse racial, religious perspectives,” Osorio said. “I think the most important thing is to develop a culture, even among your own employees, where people know their voice matters and is listened to and can be heard. And that we all need to be challenged."
But to Tucci-Osorio, staff training is not enough. She said she’s learned the most important thing to do is set up systems to listen to feedback from her staff and the more than 10,000 students in her district.
“We can have all the training we want in our school systems for adults, but if we don't stop and talk to our students and find out about their lived racial experience in our school system, we are never going to be able to better serve our students and our families," Tucci-Osorio said.
For Lydia Ato and other students on the Tartan High School student leadership council, this means they have had the chance to present their research and opinions to Osorio herself, as well as to all the teachers in their school. They’ve even gone on to present their work to education leaders around the state, including the Minnesota Department of Education.
“It has kind of shown me that my voice is important,” Ato said. “It has shown that student voice should be listened to and should be used to make decisions, because the decisions impact us.”
Think about intent vs. impact
Osorio and other leaders in her district said hearing what students think has not always been easy.
“We always have to think about intent versus impact. Someone may have good intentions for a lesson they taught or an activity they ran, but if the impact is such that it does marginalize people, or people are feeling like they were marginalized in the process, we have to stop and evaluate and look back and reflect on that," Osorio said.
Ty Thompson is principal at Lydia Ato’s high school, and has worked with Osorio to elevate student voice. She is black, and said working for racial equity is a high priority for her. But even so, she said, she has been surprised and even personally hurt by some of the things students have said about the atmosphere in the school she leads.
“As a woman of color, I feel like it's easier for me at times to understand the experiences that students (of color) are having because I've also had similar experiences in education myself,” Thompson said. “And yet, seeing some of the survey results at times is hard, and it can be a bit painful .... because you think you're doing a really good job and then seeing the difference between the students' experiences and what we think we're doing for them is challenging.”
For her, working through that challenge is rewarding.
“That’s been one of the greatest gifts,” Thompson said, “Because then it makes it easier to figure out what we need to do to do better. The information is right there. So all we need to do is talk to more people and figure out what we could be doing differently or better so that more students feel included and more students are getting what they need."
Osorio and Thompson are quick to say that their work elevating marginalized student voice is just chipping away at the huge iceberg of racial inequality in their school system. They said a racist incident could happen at their school at any time. But they’re hopeful the systems they’ve put in place empower students, teachers and families to talk about the real, sometimes painful experiences they’ve had at school. They hope it’s at least one effective step in the direction of real change.
"They're traveling through school, they're spending the majority of the time with us, and if they're reporting that they're not having experiences where they feel safe...then that's a problem,” Thompson said. “Pretending as if issues of race don't exist in a school or anywhere in society is not preparing our students for the workforce and for success in life."