Education

Students talk and adults listen in new San Juan Unified program

With input from students, Paul Oropallo, acting assistant superintendent of human resources with the San Juan Unified School District, writes down helpful ideas which fall under the teacher investment and support heading during a “listening circle” program at Mesa Verde High School last  Wednesday in Citrus Heights. The students are part of this year’s “listening circle” program in the San Juan Unified School District, in which students give their thoughts about how to make the educational experience more meaningful for classmates, more effective for learning and more helpful for entering careers after high school.
With input from students, Paul Oropallo, acting assistant superintendent of human resources with the San Juan Unified School District, writes down helpful ideas which fall under the teacher investment and support heading during a “listening circle” program at Mesa Verde High School last Wednesday in Citrus Heights. The students are part of this year’s “listening circle” program in the San Juan Unified School District, in which students give their thoughts about how to make the educational experience more meaningful for classmates, more effective for learning and more helpful for entering careers after high school. rpench@sacbee.com

In a classroom at Mesa Verde High School in Citrus Heights, a basic teaching approach has been turned on its head.

Students talk. Teachers and administrators listen, learning about concerns their students might not talk about in class.

“We didn’t ever used to ask,” said San Juan Unified School District trustee Lucinda Luttgen. “It was like, ‘We know what is good for you and you don’t know anything.’ It was a one-way communication.”

The “listening circle” approach, operating this year at a dozen campuses in the district, aims to have students take ownership of their educational experiences.

Nine students, sitting in a circle, participated last Wednesday at Mesa Verde, guided by Jovon Torres, who facilitated student conversations at the participating San Juan Unified campuses. The adults, including teachers, school board members and others, listened.

“I feel like we don’t learn to appreciate diversity enough at school,” said sophomore Hazel Galvan, 16.

Establishing a business academy at the school would help students feel prepared for business later, said freshman Harvey Sewell, 15.

There were concerns about safety.

We know what to do in a fire drill, one student said. But what if someone has a gun on campus?

Schools could put cameras on lockers, said another.

Students may feel more secure with more hall more monitors and greater teacher visibility when class bells ring, others said.

“How do you know adults care about you?” Torres asked the group.

“They take the time,” answered senior Dominic Cooper, 18. Whenever students have problems, teachers are willing to talk about it, he said.

After an hour of voicing their opinions, students broke into groups with teachers and administrators to brainstorm specific solutions to issues students raised. They talked about offering more career-oriented classes, building stronger connections with teachers and ways to make learning more fun and engaging.

Associate Superintendent Donna O’Neil said students are providing adults with a “rich depth of understanding about what our students care most about.

“A lot of times that’s not the same thing that adults care about. But they are interrelated,” she said.

Teachers may be thinking about what they are teaching, while students might focus on whether they feel safe as they learn. That can go beyond the issue of physical safety, O’Neil said.

One English learner in a listening circle at another school said he was anxious about having to read aloud in front of a class before he felt prepared, O’Neil recalled. His experience resonated with teachers and other students who had experienced similar moments, she said.

The student wished that he had been given the option to pass on reading aloud, O’Neil recalled.

Listening circles help achieve a district strategy of going beyond simple student surveys to authentically listen to students describe what it’s like on campus, what’s going well or not well for them, and what they would like to see changed, O’Neil said.

The circles also help address state requirements that districts increase student engagement and improve school climate.

Sewell, the freshman, said he initially had doubts about joining in.

“I thought, ‘Oh, no. What did I walk into?’ ” Harvey said. “You had adults listening in and I was, like, ‘What?’

“It wasn’t that bad,” he said. “We got to speak out about what we think about the school in an appropriate way. We got to come in and talk ... and put it out there.”

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.

At a glance

Twelve schools with listening circles this year:

▪ Encina Preparatory High

▪ Sylvan Middle

▪ Starr King K-8

▪ Mesa Verde High

▪ San Juan High

▪ Mira Loma High

▪ Woodside K-8

▪ Arcade Fundamental Middle

▪ Rio Americano High

▪ Casa Roble High

▪ Gold River K-8

▪ Andrew Carnegie Middle

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