Students Lead the Way

February 18, 2021

By Rebecca Holmes, CEI President and CEO

When was the last time you really “stood in the shoes” of a young person in your school or in your life? Listened deeply? Maybe even shadowed them for a day to see what their learning and life experiences actually felt like? I’ve been inspired this year as I have seen more panels centering youth voice and I’m hopeful that more of our institutions are moving from voice to engagement to activation, with young people as full designers at decision-making tables.

At CEI, we’ve learned a lot about Youth Activation (one of our key design commitments) through a variety of projects, including the Youth Led Equity Council (Mesa County Valley School District 51), and Youth Connections (Alamosa School District, Cañon City Schools, Mesa County Valley School District 51, and Sheridan School District). The Homegrown Talent Initiative has opened doors for youth participation in internships and student-led projects at the school and community level. We are eager to share the lessons we are learning and the importance of creating more opportunities for youth collaboration.

Our history of working with school systems to activate students has taught us that youth activation and empowerment doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When systems lift up students to be actual design team members with authority and power, the work isn’t confined to students’ experiences in the classroom. They also have powerful opinions about social-emotional learning, family partnerships, and equity. As you will read this month, both the Youth Led Equity Council (YLEC) at Palisade High School and Bookcliff Middle School, and the incredible work that has unfolded in Swink School District show us that youth are leading processes in system redesign that impact core aspects of schools and systems. Students aren’t just talking about their personal issues – they are redesigning for the future – and asking us to join them. 

Other activity across Colorado is equally future-focused as we emerge from a challenging year. Earlier this month, we had the incredible privilege to partner with the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) for a national webinar about great work happening across Colorado that is moving us from chaos to sustained innovation. As panelists discussed the Governor’s RISE initiative, social-emotional learning, and rethinking accountability, we heard many of the participants talk about the critical need to listen to students, foster collaboration, encourage innovation, evaluate outcomes, and replicate promising practices.

Governor Polis spoke of his enthusiasm for evaluating the success of the collaborative work he sees unfolding. As practitioners and policymakers buy in to the bold work of redesign we know that full youth participation is a critical practice. CEI is committed to ensuring that students are at the center of not just why, but how our work unfolds.