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If we want students to succeed, first we must listen to them

Shelly Ellis teaches fourth-grade students at Bement Elementary

Shelly Ellis teaches fourth-grade students at Bement Elementary School in Bement, Ill. in this Sept. 18, 2013 photo. Credit: AP / David Mercer

I sit in a classroom at the end of long day, with a group of young people who seem to come alive as they describe their circumstances and brainstorm ways to improve outcomes for themselves and their community.

As I listen to these bright and energetic students, it strikes me how they have been excluded from the debate about how to improve student success. The Sacramento region was recently reminded once again that our school districts are failing to address academic pitfalls among students of color, while continuing to excel at suspending them.

As the districts develop their action plans, have they really talked about actual solutions with those who have the most at stake?

Unless something drastically changes, they will not. Not only will we continue to marginalize students’ voices, we will develop and implement measures and solutions without consulting the experts - the students.

I’m not talking about a tokenized attempt to include youth voices, including a few select young people who may or may not reflect the youth population, while the majority of young people feel invisible.

The reality is the majority of students want to be heard and when they don’t get attention, they ensure they are heard, by any means necessary, often to their own detriment. For many adolescents who are also experiencing a multitude of traumas, their behavior is screaming louder than their words.

These unheard voices, while often times termed “minorities,” comprise the majority of students struggling academically in our school districts. So if these voices are the majority in our educational failure, why are they not considered the experts we consult with when looking for solutions?

Could it be because we don’t actually want change, but rather emotion and outrage, followed by inaction and complacency? Is equipping the hidden majority with the tools to change their narrative not a vital component of our democratic system? Or have we moved so far from human kindness that their existence doesn’t matter?

It is the job of our elected officials, and those in positions of authority, to represent and embrace this majority and listen, as they listen to others when it’s politically or socially beneficial to the retention of their positions. Our students need us, and it is our responsibility to effectively and authentically engage them to ensure their future success. Let’s start by listening.

Jody Johnson, a substitute teacher for the Sacramento City Unified School District, is coordinator of Blacks Making A Difference, a student organization in Sacramento.