“PGC helped me work with others around me, whether they’re my group of friends or not. A lot of the games that we play [relate to] real life decisions, and that gives you an idea of some of the choices that you can make.” – Nora, Grade 11

Collaborative Leadership and Practices:

The importance of student voice at the High School for Health Careers and Sciences

One of the four pillars of a Community School—Collaborative Leadership and Practices—is described as “Parents, students, teachers, principals, and community partners build a culture of professional learning, collective trust, and shared responsibility using strategies such as site-based leadership teams and teacher learning communities.” So often “educational reformers partner with others to make changes in their schools. But few reformers look to students as agents of change.” “When schools find ways to welcome student opinions—to partner with students ‘as stakeholders in their own learning,’ especially at the secondary level—they do more than equip students with tools for lifelong success. They also wind up creating programs and policies that are more effective at meeting the schools’ own goals for supporting young people in their healthy development” (Harvard University Graduate Schools of Education, 2016). 

In fact, “research indicates that students who believe they have a voice in school are seven times more likely to be academically motivated than students who do not believe they have a voice (Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations, 2016). One study (239 schools in 14 states) found student voice leads to an increased likelihood that students will experience self-worth, engagement, and purpose in school. The more educators can give their students choice, control, challenge, and opportunities for collaboration, the greater their motivation and engagement will be. This can impact a student’s level of effort and persistence, which is one of the most important factors that affect achievement” (Toshalis & Nakkula, 2012).

This month, the Fordham CSTAC visited the High School for Health Careers and Sciences (HSHCS), a NYC Community School in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. This is their third year implementing the Peer Group Connection (PGC) program developed by the Center for Supportive Schools.

We spoke with program facilitators Neil Nathan, an instructional coach, and Bailee Eaglin, a youth advocate for Catholic Charities Community Services, the school’s lead community-based organization.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

What does student voice mean to you and why’d you want to bring it to the HSHCS?

Bailee Eaglin: I think largely in terms of PGC anyway, if we’re talking about leadership and we’re talking about changing the culture of the school, it’s important that the students are an integral part of what we’re trying to do. Without their buy-in, it all kind of disintegrates. So If we’re talking about PGC, student voice is the platform from which our students are better able to advocate on behalf of themselves.

Neil Nathan: We found that the freshmen feel a lot more comfortable in engaging in a variety of student-centered activities—working in groups with each other, trusting each other, having someone to go to who is a bit more experienced. And also having an opportunity to speak about the things that are concerning them in their daily lives. We’ve been creating this platform to empower our upperclassmen to support [freshman] in that process and also to support each other.

What was the process of bringing the Peer Group Connection leadership program into your school?

NN: We learned about the program through the NYC Showcase Schools initiative. We were able to see two different schools that had the program in action already, and were really impressed with what the students were able to bring to the table with regards to their facilitation. In [many] ways, these students were bringing something to the table not even teachers could bring—the ability to connect with real life and real teenage issues. It was powerful to see in action. 

And then from there we explored the option of bringing it to our school. As with any new initiative, this was a process with regards to creating the time and the program for this kind of elective, and also creating the time for freshmen to all equitably receive this kind of support from the upperclassmen. There was a lot of heavy lifting initially, programmatically and on-going from year to year. There’s still a lot of things to consider around how to make sure all the freshmen are receiving this type of support. 

A program of this magnitude required support and buy-in from school and CBO leadership. Nathan and the school’s CSD were encouraged to do the groundwork—to show the impact of PGC, to find the funding in the CBO’s Community School budget, and coordinate with programming to show how this would fit into students and teachers schedules. After showing the programs feasibility at the HSHCS they received leaderships full backing. 

Talk about the partnership with your CBO. What role do they play?

NN: I work closely with our Community School Director as, sort of, a liaison, between the school and the CBO—together, we continually advocate for the program. On the instructional side, this is the third year, and we’ve always had a co-teaching model. A relationship between a youth advocate, from Catholic Charities and a teacher or coach from the school—together we take the role of program facilitator.

Members of the CBO have a very different relationship with the students, than a normal teacher or staff member. In building opportunities for students to express their voice, it brings up stuff for them that is difficult to deal with. And it’s helpful to have the various arms of the school, whether that’s the CBO’s social worker or the CBO team or teacher’s coming together to collaborate, to support the students when challenges like that arise. And they do. Frequently.

BE: The CBO’s very much a co-facilitator of the program. As youth advocate, I support students in a way that is more focused on their emotional development. I make sure the class has the many materials needed from week to week. And I take care of many of the administrative pieces around communicating to the teachers whose classes are hosting the leaders weekly, as well as if there are any interruptions or changes of schedule.

What hurdles did you face and which do you still face?

NN: There are many. It costs money, and there were many discussions between the school and CBO about this—who would pay for what. The programmatic barriers I mentioned before around carving out the elective for the course, as well as carving out the time for all freshmen to receive outreach during the same period each week. And we have had some obstacles, particularly when one of the classes [we’re pushing into] is a Regents class. So we have to come up with work-arounds. In that case, we couldn’t go into that class—we had to hold the outreach during student’s lunch. So there’s definitely some moving parts.

We’re a school with multiple initiatives from year to year. One of our strengths is trying out a lot of different things to support our students and to create the community. But it’s also a major challenge, because you’re fighting for bandwidth with all these other initiatives that are happening at the same time. And so like Bailey was saying, it’s really important to that we’re always publicizing how amazing this is while we’re supporting the students to make it a strong program. 

What’s something you’ve learned that you could share with another school bringing in PGC or another program like it?

BE: You need buy-in, and you must continually renew this buy-in. Going back to the student voice idea and why it’s important that our students are able to advocate on behalf of the program and not just us: When we are talking about changing the culture, it becomes more important for them to be externally facing with the staff and the administration, so that they then are able to support and promote the program. It’s interesting. It’s not like there’s anyone actively working against us. It’s just the nature of a school.  There’s a lot going on and it helps when students are able to advocate on behalf of the success of the program and why it’s important.

NN: With a successful program, there’s going to be pressure to make it something it’s not—to try to leverage it for more than it is, even with the best of intentions. So some people think it’s peer mediation or it’s peer mentoring. It’s really not that. And then there’s pressure to make it that. So it’s this combination of protecting the integrity of the program, and also protecting the students. Bailey and I have been trying to think about ourselves not just as teachers, but as protectors of the environment.

The Fordham CSTAC also spoke with a few students who have been empowered by this program.

♦ “I have learned how to communicate better with people that aren’t my age and to have more patience. I’ve also learned to be more on task.  I feel like we have shown freshmen how to do things better in high school. If they have a problem, [we’ve worked with them to explore] how to solve it and look for the right way to do it. And I would have liked that support when I was a freshman, because I felt like I needed somebody to talk to. I want to say that we have helped them a lot in their private lives because sometimes they want to communicate, to tell us about what’s happening in their lives. We are there to talk, and they say they feel better when they talk to us. They trust us.” – Penelope, Grade 11

♦ “PGC helped me work with others around me, whether they’re my group of friends or not. A lot of the games that we play [relate to] real life decisions, and that gives you an idea of some of the choices that you can make.” – Nora, Grade 11

♦ “I didn’t know how to do public speaking and how to communicate with other people. Thanks to PGC, I think that students now see me as someone they can look up to and trust, and be able to speak to if they have a problem.” – Fernando, Grade 11

Click here for more information on the impact of the PGC program.

Community School Fact Sheet

School Name: High School for Health Careers and Sciences 

Location: New York, NY

Community School Since: 2015

Enrollment:  385 Students, Grades 9-12

CBO: Catholic Charities

Principal: Mr. Javier Trejo

Community School Director: Mr. Chris Anderson

Do you have a community school story that you would like featured in our e-newsletter?

Email Kevin Coyne at cstac@fordham.edu or call 212-636-6100.