Rhode Island Students Share Powerful Learnings on Educational Justice and the Future of Learning

Students from across Rhode Island came together to rethink high school. Here's what they learned about educational equity and the future of our schools.

By Nicole Smith

“The best use of my voice right now is here, doing this,” explained Lily of Ponaganset High School at the second Rhode Island Development Day, held on July 23. 

As schools across the country redesign high school, XQ hosted a series of development days to provide guidance to schools on their journey to rethink high school. The second development day focused on milestone planning for grants as well as teaching and learning practices during distance learning and beyond. The day included student sessions meant to welcome in new student design team members, build community amongst the student participants, and affirm the importance of student voice in school design. 

The day centered student voices and engaged students in the debate around what educational justice will look like in the coming school years. XQ Consultant & Storyteller Nicole Lavonne Smith kicked off the student engagement session with a Frederick Douglas quote: It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. She then asked the students to give one-word impressions of the quote. They responded with strength, growth, and possibility.  

It was an enriching, inspiring session, where every student contributed to the following takeaways:

Learning Continues Even During Uncertain Times

There are constant warnings about learning deficits that students may inherit over the course of the pandemic—and recent data attempting to quantify the learning loss is elusive at best. While it may be possible to mark where the gaps are in a student’s education, it will be much harder to measure the creativity and resilience of our students and understand how they grew during remote learning.

For instance, the students who attended this Rhode Island Development Day as part of the XQ+RI partnership, shared that even with the interruption of COVID-19, their learning had far from ceased. These students engaged in everything from t-shirt printing to handstand practice. They learned firsthand that marginalized communities often carry the weight and consequences of crises and watched inequities in education, health care, and human rights grow without signs of stopping. 

While dealing with the intersecting pandemics of COVID-19 and structural racism, these students learned to accept their vulnerabilities and to respect themselves and others. They’ve been doing all this while coming to terms with the reality that the world isn’t nearly as stable or as safe as it once seemed. 

More than that, we learned that students are looking out for each other. They are learning how to create avenues for success for one another. For instance, Holly, a recent high school graduate, spent this time learning to “pass the torch and inspire new generations of youth leaders.” 

If school communities open their minds to the myriad of ways that student learning and achievement can take place, we may all come to find that the lessons and skills learned during this time have aided in students’ growth and development. No longer can tests and standards be the sole determinant of future success and of transferable skills. It’s become clear in remote learning that we need new metrics to measure and evaluate students’ interests and needs as well as new modalities of learning. 

As another school year begins…

Students want adults to remember that upon school reopening, “things aren’t going to be the same as they used to be.” The new approach to school is going to call for more leniency, creativity, open-mindedness, and mutual understanding of each other’s responsibilities. “A student is probably going to be very different from how they were maybe a year ago or six months ago…if it’s a student, you had [previously], don’t expect them to be exactly the same, or to need the exact same things…because some people are just completely different [now],” expressed rising sophomore Lily Trunzo.

During this session, students conveyed their acceptance of the adaptations they’ll need to make moving forward. If we can all commit to adapting together, we’ll be setting each other–and our school and home communities—up for success. 

Know that educational justice can be achieved.

The definition of educational justice is constantly in flux. Different stakeholders have varying views on what it is and how to achieve it. To students at the RI Development Day, educational justice means serving the needs of every student and setting up all students to opportunities for success. It means encouraging all students, despite their academic performance level. In an educational system that centers this definition of educational justice, students would graduate school feeling motivated, ready to take on the world, and confident in their path. 

Ponaganset High School’s Mark Holdens shared, “We have such a big focus on going to college and getting a job…if we had less of a [strict] focus on curriculum and more of a focus on being people and [growing], then we could actually implement [educational justice] in a more successful way.”

We’re full of hope and gratitude.

Despite what folks may think or assume about Gen Z’ers, this generation cares deeply about what’s going on in the world right now–including COVID-19, the fight against racism and injustice, climate change, and educational inequality. But, they face these challenges and their future with a core optimism. 

Here’s a recap of insightful student quotes from the day: 

“It’s really important for students to see how we’re all standing together…people are putting their voice out there, no matter who they are, no matter what kind of background they have, no matter what kind of appearance they have…I believe that everything has happened in order for us to be able to grow as human beings. So far, 2020 has not been a great year. But at the end of the day, I hope and I believe that it’s going to be an outstanding lesson learned…The struggle that we’re all in today will give us the strength that we will need tomorrow.”

“I’m hopeful about the compassion [we’re receiving] from the community.”

“I’m very thankful for this year and the disruption to the status quo that it brought. I think it’s so important that we don’t forget everything that’s happening. We’re uncomfortable right now. We need to be uncomfortable if we ever want to see change…I definitely think this is a time of reflection that we need, and it might not look like it’s a great year, but it’s definitely a necessary year. We all needed to take a step back from our busy lives and just think about what’s really happening in our country and in our backyards.”

“Our generation and people our age care about what’s going on in the world right now. People like educating themselves and they want to be better and they want to make the world better. So that’s just super inspiring for me and I hope it goes on like that…When you’re too comfortable, nothing changes.”

“Sheltering-in-place has allowed me to become close with my family. It’s allowed me to find out who I want to be in my friend group and who I want surrounding me…I’ve also been able to expand my horizons.”

At the close of our session, the students each summarized their feelings in one word. They words they chose? Motivated. Enlightened. Anxious. Excited. Inspired. 

We also asked the students to share songs that have held meaning for them recently and compiled their responses into this Spotify playlist. Take a listen and let us know if it makes you feel as optimistic as it does us. 

Students are facing an unprecedented learning environment this fall. If you want to hear more student voices from school closures, check out these posts on the Rethink Together Forum: