Westerville high school students led projects to enact change through Central Ohio collaborative

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When a group of juniors at Westerville South High School (WSHS) surveyed their peers about a change they’d want to see in their school, many of them talked about a need for practical skills such as cooking, car maintenance and financial literacy. 

Another group of juniors at Westerville North High School (WNHS) focused their survey to peers about staff diversity and whether they’ve been able to connect with teachers whose racial and ethnic background is different from their own. 

The student-led projects are part of Ohio State University’s Student Research Leadership Collaborative, a research initiative for Central Ohio high schools that launched in January. Through the collaborative, students work with an advisor and research an issue that’s important to them at their school, examining the nature, causes and potential solutions. 

In May, students from both high schools shared their solutions through a capstone project and oral presentation to district officials and leaders from the collaborative’s partners, which include the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio, the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Ohio State’s College of Education and Human Ecology, and Columbus State Community College.

“I feel more confident after this project,” said Diana Atieh, an incoming senior at WSHS. “I feel happier knowing we are doing something that can make a change.”

Dr. Keith Bell, a lecturer at Ohio State's College of Education and Human Ecology, created the collaborative, which provides students with a platform to enact change in the school communities. The two-year program starts with juniors researching an issue they’d like to address, then putting their ideas into action as well as mentoring other collaborative students as a senior.

Bell, who previously served as principal at WSHS and a district administrator in Westerville, said the program features three components: leadership, advocacy and research.

"I want kids to be able to understand how to develop and sharpen their leadership skills at the highest level," he said. 

He also wanted to help students become informed and educated advocates, building on how some of them were engaged in the widespread protests over the death of George Floyd last summer. And he wants them to understand how to use quantitative and qualitative data to enact change in their school.

Student groups from 17 Central Ohio high schools met as a collaborative periodically since January to hear from speakers such as Clark Kellogg, a former professional basketball player who is now a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports; Erin Gruwell, a former teacher whose book “The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them” inspired the film, “Freedom Writers”; and Butch Reynolds, an Olympic track and field athlete.

Twenty-six Ohio State doctoral students served as program mentors. Bell said the program had 100% participation rate from students who conducted the work for no credit.

"It shows that if students are engaged and if it's something they care about, they want to be involved," he said.

When the student group at WSHS surveyed their peers about issues that mattered to them, they discovered a common concern: having survival skills to navigate life after high school such as applying for a job, filing taxes, maintaining a home and car and understanding basic cooking concepts.

As a solution, Atieh, Jessica Adongo, Ama Oppong-Brago, Tiara Takyi and Jada Orr proposed an Introduction to Adulting class at their school to cover those areas of interest.

“When we were having conversations with classmates, it was something they said they all want, something they think is important,” Oppong-Brago said.

The group created such a buzz about the class that a student tried to sign up for it even though it doesn’t exist — yet. Following the group’s presentation last month, they met with Superintendent Dr. John Kellogg to discuss the project with him and plans to create the class.

“I haven’t done any projects like this but I learned that we as students can take action and make change,” Takyi said. “It was interesting formating an idea from the beginning to giving a presentation to the superintendent. Now, it’s possible these classes may happen. It came from a problem and coming up with a solution.”

At WNHS, incoming seniors Maya Chaffin, Kaia Calhoun and Alison Gruber wanted to research and take action to increase staff diversity at their school. They created a survey for students on the topic, asking questions pertaining to how well students related to their teachers, if they thought their teachers were aware of students’ backgrounds or upbringings, and how such dynamics impacted their learning experience.

They were fascinated by the results. Many students of color reported a disconnect and, as a result, struggled to ask teachers for help. Meanwhile, White students indicated that their personal learning was not impacted by the lack of a connection with their teachers, but many recognized that their peers of color needed representation within the school’s staff. Some students also offered additional topics to explore, such as the impact of mental health on communication with peers and staff.

“This project means a lot to me because I’ve been in Westerville City Schools since kindergarten and I have never had a teacher in a classroom with the same skin color as me,” said Chaffin, who is Black. 

Chaffin recalled a particularly difficult day this year when she was struggling to process the news about Ma’Khia Bryant, a Black teenager who had been fatally shot by a Columbus Police officer. Chaffin said that Assistant Principal William Ragland, who is Black, pulled her and many of her Black peers out of class to discuss the incident and see how they were feeling. 

“This made me feel very comforted knowing that I could connect with a staff member and that he cared about our current circumstances,” she said.

Chaffin said her team will regroup in the coming school year to develop next steps. They already have some ideas they’d like to pursue, such as having diverse student voices represented during the staff hiring process, as well as ensuring teachers are informed of current events that may impact students of color.

“I want to make an impact for the next generation so they never have to go through what I’ve experienced,” she said. “As I look at the children of color coming after me, I want them to have representation in the classrooms so they know that they can be teachers, they can be principals, and they can be leaders. Despite the color of their skin, their future is bright and there is hope.”

Similar student-led initiatives were already occurring and continue at Westerville Central High School (WCHS) beyond the scope of the OSU collaborative. The school’s All 4 One group is an extension of their work towards the district’s strategic goals surrounding equity and access such as the Equal Opportunity Schools Lead Higher initiative. Additionally, teacher Kyle King, who has incorporated issues of social justice in his history courses for more than 20 years, was able to expand opportunities to engage students and grow their critical consciousness of issues impacting their lives and the lives of others through a new Race and Equity Studies class at WCHS. 

King’s course is one of several new high school classes recently implemented by the district. Over the past five years, the district has provided professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators to better understand the need for a culturally responsive curriculum and culturally relevant pedagogy, said Coordinator of Educational Equity Cynthia DeVese.