Here's What Happened When My School Prioritized Student Voice

For so many of us, our experiences in the classroom have taught us that schools can be breeding grounds for bullying and disenfranchisement, as school culture systems fail to maintain safe spaces for all students, and district-wide policies fail to protect our most at-risk youth. Rowan Little, a former student of a Kentucky high school once reflected––

As students and activists, we are constantly asking ourselves, “How can I make sure that I leave this place safer than it was when I entered it?” Therefore, school administrators and teachers must also constantly ask themselves, “How can I improve the school for its minorities and most vulnerable students? How do I make sure I listen to voices I may not always be hearing?”

Read about Rowan's experience at a high school that actively chose to magnify student voice and invest in school climate. You can read the original published text at GLSEN.

A few weeks ago, I graduated from of one of the highest-performing high schools in Kentucky. My school was just like many others, with a strong focus on academics, fiercely competitive athletics, outstanding arts departments, and disappointing lunch-menu options. But one thing that made our school stand out from the rest is the rapid growth in support of its LGBTQ students, made possible by several important changes by the administration.
According to the Kentucky State Snapshot from GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey, 22% of LGBTQ students in Kentucky were denied access to a bathroom that corresponds with their gender, and 26% were forbidden from even forming or promoting a GSA. My high school stood apart from the conservative climate of Kentucky as a whole, but it wasn’t because the students walking the halls were much more accepting than any others in Louisville. Rather, my school stood out as a progressive school because our administration took initiative in educating themselves and changing policies within my school.
Before I attended my school, the former principal forced the yearbook staff to cut out a page from every single yearbook because it included a story about a gay student and his experiences with coming out. Now, eight years later, at least five pages in our yearbook were dedicated to stories of LGBTQ identity.
But the differences don’t stop there.
In my sophomore year, transgender students at my school struggled with the administration for the right to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender. Now, at the close of my senior year, we have one single-stall and one multi-stall gender-neutral bathroom. Our graduation caps and gowns used to be red and white, based on a student’s legal gender, but they are now determined by last name. Three leading members of our GSA were invited to give a presentation to every teacher at their professional development day on how to respect their trans students. We also created a nonbinary option for our homecoming court, coined “homecoming royalty.”
Each of these instances highlights specific communication between the students of our school and the administration. The changes didn’t just happen because of our hard work and enthusiasm; there were specific tasks that only the principals and counselors could execute. They could’ve just as easily given up on our ideas to make change, but instead, they put forth concentrated effort to improve our school community.
On one of the last days of high school, my principal invited me to his office to discuss how things could be improved for LGBTQ students. The discussion was, initially, a surprise to me, and I was hesitant to even say anything. But once we started talking, I had several ideas. For instance, I told him that our two gender-neutral bathrooms were very hard for some students to access during the school day, because our school has three separate buildings. He responded by making plans to open another gender-neutral bathroom in one of the annexes.
Something I emphasized to him was that our curriculum needs to include more LGBTQ history, such as discussion of indigenous gender identities and the fight for LGBTQ rights in America. He was surprised to hear that several students at our high school had not heard of the AIDS crisis in any history class, and several students told me that our discussions in GSA were their first exposure to that dark chapter of our history.
There are many components to creating a community where everybody is free to be themselves without fear of judgement or assault. As students and activists, we are constantly asking ourselves, “How can I make sure that I leave this place safer than it was when I entered it?” Therefore, school administrators and teachers must also constantly ask themselves, “How can I improve the school for its minorities and most vulnerable students? How do I make sure I listen to voices I may not always be hearing?”
This LGBTQ Pride Month, as I reflect on the meaning of Pride, I’m sure that Pride means education. Without education, without intentionally and regularly educating themselves through reading articles, attending workshops, and even just talking to LGBTQ students, my school’s administration would not have made any of the changes they did in my four years. I am so proud of my school and of the positive school climate they have fostered, and I’m excited for all the opportunities they have to further learn and expand in the future.

About the Author

Rowan Little is a graphic designer, writer, and artist residing in Louisville, Kentucky. Rowan identifies as transgender and uses they/them/theirs pronouns. Rowan attends the University of Louisville's Hite Art Institute as a graphic design BFA major. They are also a graphic design intern at Kentucky Higher Education Loan Corporation.

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