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Rockingham County students weigh in on their needs, pitch solutions

Randi B. Hagi
Rockingham County juniors present ideas on how to improve their schools at a January gathering at James Madison University.

Public education is a constant target in America's current culture war. But what are local teenagers actually concerned about? What are their teachers actually seeing? In the second part of her report on a local community dialogue initiative, WMRA's Randi B. Hagi finds out.

While the adults were discussing their thoughts about public education in Rockingham County Public Schools' community dialogue initiative, the 11th grade English students across the county have been having their own conversations. And it will likely come as no surprise to any parents or teenagers listening that they generally have different concerns.

Randi B. Hagi
Amy Johnson is a librarian at Spotswood High School.

AMY JOHNSON: This entire project has been framed around Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Amy Johnson, a librarian at Spotswood High School, designed the division-wide project – in which juniors read books such as The Glass Castle and talked about the themes in it, including the author's difficult childhood and resilience. Then, they talked about their own needs at school, and how they might address them.

JOHNSON: How can we make sure that you guys are able to self-actualize throughout your school day? How do we make sure there's no food insecurity, that you're getting adequate sleep, that you're not bored in your classes? That you feel physically safe? That you're free from being bullied, but that also, you feel like you belong?

The students had these discussions first in their classrooms, and then with the whole junior class at their school. Then, about 85 of them, selected from all four high schools, gathered at James Madison University one day in January to come up with actionable solutions they could pitch to the school board.

Rex Fritz, a student at Broadway High School, presented the idea of a 'student workday' to a room full of peers from across the county.

REX FRITZ: Every other Friday would be like a day off, but instead of not having any school at all, the school would be open … and you can come in. If you have any work that needs to be done, and you can just do it, and once you finish you can go home.

And if you're already caught up on work, and don't have any extracurricular meetings that day –

FRITZ: Then you just get the day off! Because taking a break will really help with a lot of people's mental health.

Jaimie McGovern, an English and theater teacher at Broadway, noted that mental health kept coming up.

Randi B. Hagi
Jaimie McGovern teaches English and theater at Broadway High School.

JAIMIE MCGOVERN: I definitely think the mental health needs were kind of across the spectrum. … At the beginning of every school year, I have them write autobiographies, and every single one, early in the year, talked about COVID and how it affected them.

After their presentations, I asked a few of the students to tell me more about what changes they wanted to see in schools. Leo Johnson, who's the son of Spotswood Librarian Amy Johnson, is a proponent of project-based learning, rather than just teaching to the test.

[students talking in background]

LEO JOHNSON: It would help students retain knowledge better. … It would help them actually be interested in what they're learning instead of simply dumping information onto a test through memorization, and it would help them apply the information that they've learned to creative learning projects.

Glen Foster, a student at Turner Ashby, wants to have more career development opportunities.

Randi B. Hagi
Glen Foster is a student at Turner Ashby High School.

GLEN FOSTER: Different mechanics classes, and different jobs in that field.

HAGI: Like auto mechanics, or?

FOSTER: Diesel mechanics.

HAGI: Diesel, gotcha.

Here’s Malcolm Emswiler, Olivia Branner, and Taylor Suters, from Broadway:

MALCOLM EMSWILER: Our project was basically to advocate to push school further back, so it starts at nine o'clock rather than eight. That way students, as well as teachers and staff, are able to get more sleep, and the mental and physical health of students and staff can increase.

OLIVIA BRANNER: Yeah, we found a lot of studies that show that the teenage brain doesn't really properly function until around 8:30, so the material that students are learning at eight o'clock, when we first get there, isn't totally going through the brain. It kind of just goes in one ear and out the other.

Randi B. Hagi
Olivia Branner, Malcolm Emswiler, and Taylor Suters are juniors at Broadway High School.

TAYLOR SUTERS: Right now it seems like we're advocating for our younger generation, though, ones behind us, because it's so hard to change to a new schedule so quickly, but if I can help them out it helps me out, so it's all good!

Amy Johnson said one of the goals of this project was for students to get civically engaged and become more confident in presenting their ideas in public, including at school board meetings.

AMY JOHNSON: What the kids have been able to do is say, "well, we would like to propose that students have an advisory board, where we can be representatives from our school." … They want to go to the board and say, "we, we want a part of this. We deserve to have our voices heard."

They've also had to practice synthesizing the different ideas generated by their groups.

JOHNSON: They've learned a lot about what it means to meet in the middle.

She encouraged anyone who's critical of teachers and public education to just talk to their kids.

JOHNSON: Everybody is so concerned about what the kids are exposed to, and what they're being taught. … My concern is that education is a scapegoat, now, for issues that kids are facing, and that we need to maybe look at other influences, such as TikTok. [chuckles] I mean, teachers are not the influence that parents are giving them credit for, and they should be.

The final event planned in the school district's community dialogue process is a public meeting on March 23rd. Anyone with a connection to Rockingham County Public Schools is welcome to attend and engage in a respectful discussion about public education. Attendance is limited to 150 people, and registration is required.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.
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