A group of students focused on social emotional learning (SEL) and getting in touch with the decision-making process at their educational institutions recently gave their first presentation to the Taos Municipal Schools board of education on Wednesday (May 10) at Ranchos Elementary School.
Mark Richert, SEL coordinator for the Taos Municipal Schools, introduced the presentation, which was written, arranged and performed by the students participating in the program. Richert himself is the faculty adviser for the group, which is composed of students from Taos Middle School and Taos High School.
The presentation consisted of students expressing their love for creativity, nature and music, while delivering messages of positivity to the school board. They also delved into topics of student engagement, something they think can increase with more field trips and positive attitudes from educators and administrators. Before long, they were communicating their core message: becoming part of the bureaucratic process often overlooked when it comes to education.
“No decision should be made about us without us,” the students intonated after sharing personal experiences with the school system that impacted their education. They also came prepared with statistics, with one student noting that students who participated in SEL had a 15-percent-higher graduation rate than those who did not participate.
When the presentation concluded, board member Pascual Maestas asked how many of them participated in extracurriculars. When very few raised their hands, Maestas inquired about reasons why and cited limits to transportation and lack of attractive activities. He then noted that the students would soon see a survey, on which they will be able to express their desires for extracurriculars.
Richert then recommended the school district implement a student advisory committee. Not just student government or council, he specified, but one that would “engage the students in a process that impacts their day-in and day-out.” Maestas placed the implementation of such a committee on a future agenda.
According to Maestas, Parks and Recreation, the tree board and the recycling advisory board are all seeking youth representation and have open positions waiting to be filled by young community members. He mentioned this to the SEL students, some of whom took interest, according to Richert.
“I think those kinds of connections are the real gain of a project like this,” Richert said. “They feel empowered, they feel heard. After the board meeting, the sense of accomplishment, the smiles, the congratulations, you know, those comments said it all from the students’ perspective.”
Since they first organized in December, Richert and his students have held four Student Leadership Summits around the county. Each time, he said they have understood more about themselves and how to approach their own education. To Richert, meetings and presentations like the one held on Wednesday are the key to achieving their goal of seeing more student representation in the decisions made about them.
Throughout the school year, the students were tasked with returning to their schools after the summits and having conversations with their peers to discover their wants and needs. The approach made by Richert and his students has been largely utilitarian, and according to him, the students have even been taught how to set their own desires aside and focus on the benefit of the collective student body.
As they gathered information about their peers, they compared their findings and found commonalities. As the students identify and tackle the needs of their peers, Richert believes their fellow classmates will start to take notice and develop an interest in joining the group for themselves.
“The big thing will be [whether or not] the school board or administration heard what the students had to say,” Richert said. “Will they be able to act on them? Will they continue a process that’s not dependent on me or someone getting a grant to pull kids out of school to go off-campus to think of these things? Can they begin to integrate this process into the way the school board, district or individual schools work?
“That was my final recommendation: Let’s not make these kinds of things a special project; let’s build it into how we do things and who we are,” Richert added. “If people are listening and paying attention and acting on student recommendations, then I feel like the other students will feel the impact of this kind of project.”
Richert’s hope for the future of Taos schools is to have student advisory councils. The group was recently invited to attend an SEL for New Mexico virtual conference to share their experiences, something that Richert hopes will inspire others to do something similar.
In action, Richert said, SEL looks like “authentic conversations; bringing people together and building a safe environment, a safe group where people feel that they can be honest, and they’re trusted, they’re respected, and they can be themselves, so that when they dive into the real issues, they can have that conversation without being defensive.”
Richert and the group of students have been the subject of a documentary being made by UNM–Taos students who have been documenting their summit meetings and were there for their first presentation.
This is a great program to have to create the leadership, understanding and commuication skills to the next generation of our society, Upward Bound was a federaly funded program to provide academic assistance in understanding the basis of acadmic subjects run by the Universities. This is at the different high school level. I will be interested in following this subject.
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