A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to writing this column.
More like frustrating – and almost embarrassing.
When the Georgia Department of Education announced the 142 members out of more than 1,500 applicants from middle schools and high schools selected to be on the state superintendent’s 2017-18 Student Advisory Council last week, the list of students in the email contained only one from the Columbus area. Such a revelation elevated what would have been a news brief into a full-fledged story idea.
So I visited Columbus High School and interviewed freshman Cecile Choudhury. She impressed me with her answers after I asked her to suggest the “Top 3 Ways to Improve Public Education in Georgia.” And if you stay patient with me, you’ll read her proposals. But first, please let me explain the not-so-funny part.
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Yesterday, as I reread the email from the GaDOE while writing this column, the list of names seemed too short to include 142 students. When I scrolled to the bottom, I finally noticed this alert: “Message clipped” and a link to “view entire message.”
Well, lo and behold, Cecile isn’t the only council member from the Columbus area. Seven others also were selected. They are:
▪ Muscogee County: sophomore Paisley Williams, junior Patrick Chappel and senior Sakeli Givens, all attending Columbus High School.
▪ Harris County: sophomore Detrich Wadley.
▪ Troup County: seventh-grader Trevor Booten and eighth-graders Ka’Various Perry and William Pitts.
I welcome Paisley, Patrick, Sakeli, Detrich, Trevor, Ka’Various and William to email me at mrice@ledger-enquirer with their “Top 3 Ways to Improve Public Education in Georgia.” Although their comments can’t be included in the printed edition of this column, I will add them to the online version.
So without further ado, here are Cecile’s “Top 3 Ways to Improve Public Education in Georgia”:
Improve home life for students
Cecile suggests establishing a program that shows parents “ways they can create a healthier environment at home. I know there are students who are homeless or their parents just neglect them, so that really affects how they perform in school. A lot of times, we are given different opportunities in school, but some students never tell their parents about it, and it doesn’t carry on and they just forget about it.”
Communities should utilize their schools more for parent education, Cecile said.
“If there was a way for parents to be more involved,” she said, “they would start caring about their child’s success more if they could learn the things their child could do.”
Improve teachers’ connection with students
Cecile said she “loves” her teachers, “but some teachers, they’re just there to teach for the sake of their job. They don’t put the effort and the care into it.”
A teacher’s attitude affects student achievement, Cecile asserted.
“If you have a teacher that cares for you and shows interest in you, you’ll perform better,” she said. “If they don’t teach with that effort, then you’re not going to show much effort in their class either.”
More professional development training sessions should be devoted to helping teachers relate to students, Cecile said. So the focus should be on not only what teachers teach but how they teach.
“I have some teachers who really connect with me,” she said, “and that really makes a big difference.”
And that can be tough to do with a schedule as rigid as the school day, Cecile acknowledged, but it can be done through brief yet meaningful bursts of humanity.
“That 30-second conversation can make a big difference,” she said.
Then she described how such a conversation takes place.
“The teacher shows lots of interest in things we do,” she said, “rather than just teaching the knowledge and then you just go to the next class. … That makes all students feel more special and more committed toward their work.”
Combat bullying on social media
Cecile contends the traditional approach to anti-bullying campaigns is too old-fashioned.
“We put posters up and we tell people about bullying and we watch videos,” she said, “but none of it seems to work.”
She suggests those anti-bullying messages should be spread where many of the threats are made: via social media, such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.
“In school, we learn a lot about not bullying each other,” she said. “But online, it’s easier to say things to people because you’re not face to face.”
Cecile would like to see online ads with anti-bullying messages and tips about how to respond to bullying and how to report it.
“People are really mean to each other in (online) comments,” she said. “People bully as a joke sometimes, but they don’t know what it means to other people. People think it’s cool because other people do it.”
Student Advisory Council members were chosen based on the strength of their essay answers, which focused on their ideas for public education as well as their community service experience, the GaDOE’s news release says. The council will meet Oct. 3, Jan. 16 and April 10 with middle school students and Oct. 4, Jan. 17 and April 11 with high school students.
The council will discuss the impact of state policies in the classroom, as well as other issues related to education, serve as the superintendent’s ambassadors to their schools and participate in service projects, the news release says.
Cecile has logged more than 100 hours of community service this past year, including at the Valley Rescue Mission’s shelter for battered women and their children, where she tutored five boys and helped them improve their grades.
Encouraged by those results, Cecile wanted to find another way to boost the shelter’s residents. She used the $500 she earned for finishing as runner-up in the Kiwanis Club of Columbus T. Hiram Stanley Award program, annually honoring the most outstanding middle school students, to buy books and other materials to start a GED class for women at the shelter.
“So far, I’ve helped two women pass their math GEDs,” she said, “and I’m working with five more. I can’t even describe the feeling. They are somebody who’s been abused or they’ve lost all their money and they think their life is over. But then you’re there to help them get a second chance.”
So far, two council members took advantage of the offer and emailed me their suggestions.
Here is the input from Paisley, the Columbus High sophomore on the council:
Bullying online: “With social media around, kids are more apt to say and do things they normally wouldn't because their face is hidden behind a screen,” Paisley wrote. “I feel as if schools talk about bullying and spread awareness, but don't take the appropriate actions to actually do anything about it. There needs to be more attention directed on the students and their actions online and on campus, than just waiting for someone to step up and say something.”
School nutrition: “Breakfast and lunch are two of the most important meals served at schools, and for some students, it's their only meals,” Paisley wrote. “While there is the NSLP in play for Georgia to help financially, we need to worry about the quality and quantity of the food as well. More balanced breakfast/lunch choices can help boost students' focus in school and guarantee a nutritious meal.”
Classroom instruction: “Many times assignments are given in class that the instructor has said he/she will not aid us on, rather we as students would have to come together and try and figure out what we didn't understand,” Paisley wrote. “I support this way of learning, however, if this is so, we as students need to have the available resources to figure out the problems without the teacher's aid. Resources may include videos that explain the material or hands-on activities to stimulate our minds to remember the material, rather than looking up the answers and remembering it for a short time period.”
Here in the input from Patrick, the Columbus High junior on the council:
Increase civic engagement: “At Columbus High I am the President of the Columbus High Young Democrats as well as the chairman of the High School Democrats of Georgia and I have personally seen the effects that civic engagement can have on students,” Patrick wrote. “By having community leaders and healthy civic discussions, we can better engage students and help to mold a new generation of engaged citizens. My idea that I suggested in my application was to have healthy political and social discussions in classes like government so that we can help students to form their own political opinions.”
Incorporate the arts into education more: “I am a student at the Springer Theater Academy and I have personally seen the power of the arts as a tool for education,” Patrick wrote. “By redefining how we educate students, we can change the connotation that school has and make it a rewarding and fun experience rather than a chore we are required to do.”
Make dress codes less strict: “Focus on fostering creativity and individuality,” Patrick wrote. “Too many times I have seen the disparity between how the dress code is applied to boys as opposed to how it is applied to girls, but if public schools in Georgia focused instead on improving the class environment then public schools would improve significantly.”