Emerson Elementary Magnet School brings student voice to equity work with new student equity team

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Emerson Elementary Magnet School is bringing student voice into their equity work this year with its new student equity team. 

Composed of eight fifth-graders and led by school counselor Andrea Wiseman, the equity team made their debut during this week’s Start with Hello Week festivities, supporting class activities and school-wide projects focused on inclusion, belonging and equity. 

“I want to make sure that everyone knows there’s someone to help them,” equity team member Amelia Bischoff said. 

Emerson, which hosts the World Cultures magnet program for grades 1-5 and Fine Arts program for grades 1-3, joins Heritage Middle School in its recent effort to include student voice in its equity initiatives. Heritage launched a student equity council in January as a way to include and empower students to champion equity throughout their school community.

“We really wanted that student voice,” said Wiseman, who also serves as Emerson’s equity facilitator. “We thought it would be a good idea to get a team together of students, especially students who are passionate about this work and want to be advocates in their school and in their community.”

She said much of that passion stems from what they’ve learned in the classroom. 

As fourth-graders, for example, students explored cultures and traditions much different than their own through the Walk a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes lesson. For a month, they met in small reading groups, pouring over picture books featuring different cultures and reflecting on what they’ve read through discussions. At the end of the year, they all read “A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park, which is based on the experiences of Sudanese Lost Boy refugees. 

This year, fifth-graders kicked off the school year reading “Count Me In” by Varsha Bajaj, which tells the story of Karina, a young Indian American seventh-grader who sees the effects of racism in her own life and battles prejudice in her community. When her beloved grandfather is injured in a racist attack, Karina strives to tell the world that communities are better when they're diverse and united.

“Getting them to see that as a fifth-grader, you have a big voice and can make a big impact,” Wiseman said. “Sometimes the little things you do are big things and those big things are adding up and are making a difference.”

The lesson with teacher Bethany Morris served as inspiration for fifth-graders to join the student equity team, where they can have a hand at creating an inclusive space at Emerson.

“It’s important that the work is in action at the elementary level,” said Anitra Simmons, the district’s Educational Equity coordinator. “It’s good to see kids helping kids feel like they belong, taking the time to go out of their way to help them feel like they belong.”

As part of this week’s Start with Hello Week — a national call-to-action week dedicated to making new social connections and creating a sense of belonging among youth — Emerson’s student equity team visited classrooms to read Heather Avis’ book “Everybody Belongs,” which is about embracing people where they are and making sure they feel included.

They helped younger students create and decorate handprints from paper with different skin tones to hang on a “belonging” tree for the school-wide Little Hands Can Make a Big Difference project.

Morris and Wiseman integrated the Count Me In book project with this week’s events, hanging green hearts with drawings and hashtags that highlight empathy, equity, a sense of belonging from the trees at the school’s entrance. In the book, students posted green hearts in solidarity with the main character’s grandfather after his attack.

School leaders are mapping out the student equity team’s future work, but plan to have them work alongside staff and family members on future projects. Students, meanwhile, have some ideas, including a poetry reading to showcase different student voices, a partnership with other student equity teams, activities to help connect students, and a giant affirmation wall.

“If someone is having a bad day, they can look to the wall and see positive messages like ‘You Matter,’ or ‘You Belong Here,’” student equity team member Beteck Agbor Enow said. “I want to make people feel good, to brighten their day.”

For equity team member Ivy Mara, having a student equity council makes her feel supported. 

“It makes me feel like when I’m there, I’m safe and I’m going to be accepted for who I am.”