Student Voice in Accreditation
By Hailey Swett, Class of 2019
The Sharon Academy, Sharon, VT
At first glance, I appeared to fit right in with the group of students eating together in the dining hall. I was sixteen years old, the same age as many of the students with whom I was chatting. A careful listener would have heard, though, that our conversations were somewhat one-sided. I was asking most of the questions; they were doing most of the talking. I had a job to do, and I was taking it seriously. (A careful observer might also have noticed that I was the only one of the group not wearing a uniform!)
In the spring of my sophomore year of high school at The Sharon Academy (TSA), Michael Livingston, TSA’s Head of School, approached me with an “outside-the-box” idea. He explained that he would be chairing a NEASC Visiting Team to Stanstead College in Quebec, Canada the following fall. He wanted me to join the team as a fully participating member, with the ultimate goal of helping to author the final report. To say that I was excited by the idea is an understatement. As one of two members (alongside the Assistant Head of School) of the Steering Committee for my school’s Five Year Interim Report, I was already very familiar with the NEASC Accreditation process. I understood the incredible time and energy involved, but I also knew that this would be an entirely new level of challenge. I would be stepping into a role that had never before been occupied by a student. Because having a student voice on the Visiting Team made a tremendous amount of sense to me, I was eager to take on the challenge. What began as Michael’s idea led to conversations with Jay Stroud, Director of the Commission on Independent Schools, and eventually became a full-fledged plan. In October of 2017, I accompanied Michael and the rest of the team to Stanstead for their four-day visit.
Over the course of the visit, I spent three nights in a Stanstead dorm, attended all the meals in the dining hall, sat in on numerous classes and watched sports practices and games. In the limited time we had at the school, I wanted to grasp as full a picture as possible of the student experience. I am quite certain that, in the end, the Stanstead student voice was amplified by my presence on the committee. Throughout the process, students were noticeably more open with me than with adult members of the Visiting Team, often specifically seeking me out to share their experiences. One student commented that she felt more comfortable giving feedback to me than any other form of feedback she had ever given during her time at the school. The simple reality is that most teenagers feel comfortable more quickly with other teenagers than they are apt to feel with adults. For this reason alone, student representation on Visiting Teams is essential.
The adult members of the Visiting Team were very receptive to my participation and open to my suggestions. Ultimately, I helped author specific sections of the report and my voice is very much a part of the final product. As we were writing, it was not uncommon for other committee members to ask me to read what they had written, both as a way to check their work and to be sure that the student voice was integrated into the report. Members of the Visiting Team commented that they believed at least one of the major recommendations would not have made the list had I not been part of the team.
Just as I believe that my presence contributed meaningfully to the work of the committee, I also know that I was deeply changed by the experience. Being a member of a NEASC Visiting Team was a “game changer” for me. Through the process, I discovered my own passion for education and my desire to work in the field in the future.
Since serving on the Visiting Team, I have reflected on what I see as the necessary characteristics of a student committee member to help make for a successful process. First and foremost, student Visiting Team members must have discovered their voice and be willing to use it with adults in unfamiliar settings. They need to be able to communicate clearly through speaking and writing with peers and adults. They must be able to listen deeply, ask probing questions, and consider multiple perspectives. Finally, they must understand how the NEASC Accreditation process works. Prior experience with their own school’s Self-Study and reaccreditation process is a huge advantage and would help in their understanding of the big picture.
From participation in a school’s Self-Study to a role on a Visiting Team, the student voice can both enrich the accreditation process and allow for authentic opportunities of challenge and growth for students fortunate enough to be involved. I am incredibly grateful to have had such a unique, real-world opportunity and can only hope that my positive experience will help continue to pave the way for other students to be similarly involved. If schools exist to serve students and to help them become productive members of society, then the accreditation process needs to be done not only for students, but also by students.
If schools exist to serve students and to help them become productive members of society, then the accreditation process needs to be done not only for students, but also by students.
Hailey Swett, Class of 2019, The Sharon Academy, VT