Making education better in BC

“Be it resolved that BCSTA request the provincial government to amend the School Act to enable Boards of Education to include student trustees.”

What an incredible day.

Spread out across Canada yet simultaneously glued to our screens, Team SVI was frantic. While scrolling through our Twitter feeds as if our lives depended on it, we couldn’t believe our eyes when this tweet popped up.

#stuvoiceBC success!

The thing is, this wasn’t the first time this motion had been tabled at a British Columbia School Trustees Association (BCSTA) annual general meeting. In April 2013, a very similar motion was presented by the Vancouver School Board (VSB) but narrowly defeated in a vote of 112 to 99. We had to work harder than ever to reverse the vote in 2014, and we took several pivotal steps to do so. 

Patti Bacchus, Chair of the VSB, is one of our strongest proponents and a bold supporter of student voice.

For me, it all started in February 2012 when I was chatting with my friend Mathias Memmel, a past student trustee of Avon Maitland District School Board in Ontario. We met at a conference in Ottawa and I’d recalled him mentioning the student trustee role during one of our conversations. Student trustees were at first a foreign concept, but after grasping an understanding, I could not understand why the position was not already in place in BC. Students are the direct primary consumers of the education system. Why was every single decision made entirely by adults who had last spent time in the classroom years ago? Why did students not have a say in their own education? With this in mind, I decided to introduce the concept of student trustees to the VSB trustees.

I first presented the idea to the VSB’s Committee I which was chaired by Trustee Mike Lombardi, a vocal proponent of student voice. Shortly before my presentation, I coincidentally met a new friend (now SVI’s Executive Director, Chris Grouchy) from the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association while travelling in Ontario, who connected me with SVI’s co-founders. After receiving a unanimous go-ahead by Committee I to present at the next board meeting, I flew off to Toronto to begin my first year of university and delve into my new work with SVI. After my departure from the city, incoming president Jennifer Yoon and the Vancouver District Students’ Council (VDSC) team took a key role in the student trustee pilot project advocacy.

In the VSB, we have student councils in every secondary school as well as a district-wide student council in place. VSB students are extremely fortunate to attend a progressive district in which school trustees are incredibly open to hearing students’ voices. During my year serving as the VDSC president in 2012/13, efforts to bring more students into the board’s consultative processes expanded significantly as part of the VSB’s strategic plan to increase student engagement. Students were invited to attend student forums, participate in committee meetings, and more. If student voice was so prevalent in the VSB, why was it necessary to have student trustees on the board?

I realized during my time attending numerous student forums and youth leadership discussions, that there was only so much ‘voice’ that students had. Because we didn’t have a formal, institutionalized outlet for our opinions, we were powerless in guiding the direction for our voices. Having that direct representative — a democratically elected student trustee dedicated to representing students’ interests — always present at the board table ensures that students are always heard. In the case of education where students are the main constituents, the addition of student trustees is not just beneficial for students. Supported by the Student Voice Framework as well as years of proven success in Ontario and New Brunswick, student trustees result in enhanced quality and increased efficiency in policy and decision-making. We hear direct feedback from school trustees on the value of having a student at the table to contribute a valuable student perspective to discussions. By design, student trustees allow students to take ownership of their education which results in increased student satisfaction and communication.

Although the BCSTA motion had failed, the VSB went ahead to implement a student trustee on their board. On 17 June 2013, the VSB unanimously adopted the Student Trustee Pilot Project.

 

Shortly after, the Sunshine Coast School District passed a policy to bring aboard a student trustee and district student voice team to their Board of Education.

Sunshine Coast School District trustees and Maya were instrumental in supporting the advancement of the student trustee position across BC.

After the BCSTA motion at their 2013 AGM failed and the VSB program passed, we sent a SVI delegation (Chris, Jennifer, and Hirad Zafari) to host a session at the Canadian School Boards Association’s annual congress in BC. We met with hundreds of school trustees and provided the information and education necessary to allow students to be part of the conversation. Our BC Ambassadors (Nick, Maya, and Chansey Chiang) presented a series of workshops at the BCSTA Academy in December.

Leading up to the motion this year, we released the Student Trustee Handbook and recorded a live Hangout with Student Trustees to maximize education on the topic alongside various email and social media campaigns. On April 26, we were ecstatic to learn that the motion had passed. It’s a monumental event for BC students because they finally have the support of trustees to obtain a formal outlet and become official stakeholders in education.

We asked people to share this graphic in support of institutionalized student voice across BC. Overnight (and on a Friday night!), we garnered around 66 Facebook shares and 24 retweets of the graphic. We had no access to paid social media ads but we did to an incredible network of willing student leaders.

What are the next steps? SVI, along with our partners in BC, will be spearheading a leading role to ensure there is necessary student consultation and support in working with the BC government to amend the School Act for student trustees. The journey doesn’t end here and we’ll work with every single school board to ensure students can become partners, not just end-recipients, in education.

So, thank you students. Thank you school trustees. Thank you to our advisors, BC ambassadors, and especially Team SVI for making this happen. This was a grassroots movement and it could not have been possible without you. There is so much more work to do, and we’re honoured to be playing a role in helping shape the best education system for Canada.

 

This was first published in the Student Voice Initiative blog in my capacity as the Director of Policy & Outreach.

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