State Superintendent Denise Juneau sat in the front row Monday as high school students presented their ideas for improving Montana’s public schools.
One group of students suggested changes to school attendance policies. Another tackled the length of lunch periods, while others sought ways to enhance mentoring, add opportunities for hands-on learning and reduce drinking or texting while driving.
They posted their ideas on giant sticky notes in the front of the classroom, expounding on the merits of each and brainstorming ways they as students can encourage responsibility among their peers.
The exercise was part of a two-day summit for the state Student Advisory Board, which Juneau first assembled four years ago to hear from students and discuss core components of her “Graduation Matters” initiative.
The group of 38 students comes from different schools, backgrounds and circumstances, which Juneau said brings a diverse perspective to the summit, which was held in Helena over the past
Juneau said she’s seen a few themes recur each year among student board members. Students are concerned about the relevancy of what they’re learning, seek support from caring adults and want to be challenged in school, she said.
The Office of Public Instruction puts together a report after each summit, Juneau added, with student input serving as a “sounding board” for her work.
“It seemed to be the missing voice in our education policy at the state level,” she said.
Student wellness was this year’s focus — everything from substance abuse to nutrition to mental and emotional health.
On Monday morning, students looked at data from Montana’s latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey and participated in structured discussion about dating and healthy relationships.
In the afternoon, the topics were left to the students, as each group highlighted what it saw as one need among their schools.
Reed Lone Fight presented a proposal to modify attendance policies. Popular “10-day rules,” where students incur penalties after 10 or more absences, end up discouraging students with many absences from going to school, he argued.
Instead, he said, attendance policies could be structured more like in businesses, with a certain number of days designated for different types of absences. Students who don’t miss school could accumulate an allowance over their four years.
The next group, meanwhile, sought ways to increase offerings of Advanced Placement and dual-credit courses, particularly in rural areas. They argued that students from schools without such courses can be at a disadvantage when applying to college.
“What happened to lunch hour?” another presentation began, with a delivery that might have won a speech and debate competition. “In many schools, it’s turned into lunch half-hour.”
That group argued for a statewide lunch period of 45 minutes, enough time to eat and relax without cutting too heavily into class time, they said.
When the superintendent asked how many students had a lunch period of that length, almost no hands went up.
Conversation about the lunchroom was particularly spirited, with student board members debating rules for students who eat off-campus, weighing the costs and benefits of local food and considering taking longer class days in exchange for longer lunch.
“They’re very savvy about all these things,” Juneau said.