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Ed.D. Graduate’s Dissertation Paves the Way to Student Designed Policy

Friday, December 02, 2022

Kayce Smith '12M, '21 Ed.D. earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership in July 2021. The title of her dissertation was “Raindrops in an Ocean: Co-Constructing Educational Equity with Minoritized Students’ Voices.” The study began with discussions with New Hanover County high school students and graduates. Dr. Smith credits her learnings with those participants for her desire to continue similar work after the study was completed which led to the creation of a new policy that gives students in the county a voice in decisions involving rules and policies that affect them.

The Student Voice Policy was unanimously approved by the New Hanover County Board of Education on October 4. The overview says:

The board strives for a system that fosters and sustains student activism and engagement and ultimately provides intentional structures for students from across the county to have an outlet to express their concerns and ideas. These structures should represent an inclusive, equitable, representative means of engagement for students that transcends an act of tokenism. This policy seeks to provide structures for students to work and collaborate with equal voice with adult decision-makers so there are options and opportunities for students to impact decisions that have a direct impact on them.

The policy calls for creating a Student Engagement Team at the district level and allowing a high school student representative on board committees, and solidifies structures already in place including a Superintendent's Student Advisory Council and Student Equity Teams in NHCS middle and high schools.

Smith is a career educator with a long-standing passion for student and youth advocacy, and particular passion for helping to elevate the voices and stories of youth who are members of groups that have historically been marginalized. As a doctoral student in WCE’s Educational Leadership program, she met with 18 year old students and graduates of NHCS who identified under various non-dominant groups to begin to explore the question, “How can students’ experiences and perspectives help inform schools to become more equitable and inclusive?”

Schala Harper, a Special Education teacher and graduate of WCE’s Residency Licensure program, shares Smith’s passion. After Smith’s dissertation was complete, the two educators teamed up, working as self-described “adult accomplices,” helping to guide additional student discussions on the topic.

In 2021, the school district partnered with the national organization Student Voice to develop a proposal for sustainable student engagement. Over several months, a group of five students and more than a dozen of their peers worked to develop a Student Voice policy. With support from Smith, Harper and members of the NHCS Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the students presented their ideas to the New Hanover County Board of Education policy committee over the summer. In August, the committee unanimously recommended the students’ policy for Board consideration, and it was approved by the full Board of Education in October.

“These amazing students worked for the last full year strategically brainstorming, planning, learning, writing, editing, revising, and presenting a policy for them, by them,” Harper said. “The students want to be included in conversations about their curriculum, about their space, about their environment, about their safety, about who they are individually, and who they are, collectively. They want to be seen, be heard, feel loved, be appreciated, and not be invisible anymore.”

“I am so proud of these students,” Smith added. “Three students in particular - Isaiah Singleton, Sara Frances Butler, and Tenaya Toon - deserve a lot of credit as they labored through the fall of 2021 to prepare an application process for their peers, which they thoughtfully managed when over 30 applications came in, as well as an outline for the project collaboration with Student Voice. They also worked with Schala and me to engage students and inform other educators about the student voice continuum. The result is a policy for authentic and sustainable engagement. It is an overall hopeful policy and we were ecstatic to see it unanimously pass.”

Still, Smith cautioned that ‘a policy is just a piece of paper with words on it until the institution enacts it,’ and says there is still work to be done.

“Our students are eager to see more adults step up to help see their vision played out through thoughtful implementation,” she said. “As one student says, ‘This policy is not just about including the valedictorian-class-president-type.’ We want to draw out the voice of the student who sits in the back of the classroom, the student who normally stays silent, the student who gets overlooked.” 

Smith and Harper are currently working with a core group of students to share their story on EdNC.org as well as on the NC Public School Forum’s “Education Matters” tv show.

“Elevating student voices to inform school improvement and reform is an innovation that is still an outlier with few early adopters,” Smith said. “To be effective, we need to think strategically about the structures that are in place to learn from students. We’re optimistic that we now have a transformational, powerful opportunity for students to lead and have a voice in their own learning.”

Related Videos and News Stories

New Hanover County Schools, YouTube Video, May 2022 Student Voice Roundtable

WHQR, October 11, NHC students find representation on board's agenda, governing committees

WECT, October 4, 2022 New Hanover Board of Education approves student voice policy

StarNews, June 14, 2022 Teens propose policy to bring student voice into New Hanover school board decisions

EducationNC, July 16, 2020 ‘What is the purpose of school?’ — Hope Starts Here explores student voice efforts in New Hanover County