Three Watson Chapel High School students shared results of a project at a board meeting Monday, after which the Watson Chapel High principal says she had not been informed about the existence of the project. Ima Etim is the director of the Arkansas Student Voice Council, whose mission is to provide students a chance to analyze and develop solutions on key issues within the Arkansas educational system. Etim is also a teacher in the Pine Bluff School District at the First Ward Alternate School.
“I had students come to me after school sharing their concerns about what they wanted to see changed within their school district,” Etim said. “I listened to them and tried to sympathize with them but I felt as if I wasn’t doing enough to help them have that platform in which to share their voices.”
Etim said she recruited students from Pine Bluff, White Hall, and Watson Chapel high schools.
\ She oversaw Watson Chapel High School senior Madelynn Van Veckhoven, Nicola Hawthorne, and Malcolm Peoples. They conducted a research project starting in the fall of 2016 and developed proposals for board members to consider.
Van Veckhoven said she took a survey of her fellow students. They responded to questions regarding rules governing discipline, whether a 35-minute lunch period is an insufficient amount of time, policies governing students use of bathrooms with the purpose of minimizing disruptions of class, and whether to allow students to say the pledge of allegiance, prayers, and a voluntary moment of silence.
“I believe that giving every student and faculty member an opportunity to participate in reciting the pledge of allegiance, and a moment of silence to pray, meditate, think, or reflect would improve peace among our school,” Van Veckhoven said. “This could also build Watson Chapel as a whole.”
Hawthorne said she gave a survey to her classmates over a period of four months regarding the kinds of courses they wished Watson Chapel High School offered. She said students reported showing “a lack of interest in courses being offered,” “being limited to certain studies,” and asked for new courses to prepare for adulthood and college.
“They would like to have more [Advanced Placement] classes that challenge them academically and parenting classes that prepare them for adulthood, which could possibly limit the amount of teen pregnancies,” Hawthorne said. “They would also like to receive exposure to their field of study. Examples include physical therapy and digital production. They would like more extracurricular classes such as soccer or boxing and they want diverse foreign language classes that go beyond their level such as a Spanish Three class.”
Peoples said he gave a survey to his peers in reference to issues regarding the faculty and administration and they identified two issues: communication between students and teachers and teaching methods. He praised the administrators for facilitating “one big happy family” yet said they can improve. On the question of what qualities make a good teacher, Peoples shared his classmates’ answers.
“Twenty-nine percent of the students said that good teachers are those who listen to their students and are good at explaining what they are teaching,” Peoples said. “Twenty-seven percent said they are patient, creative, focused, and motivated just like a mother and father of a family. Twenty-three percent said that they can be respectful but also controlling in their classroom. And a good ten percent said good aspects of a teacher are like those of a teacher we all know and love: Miss Branch.”
On the subject on students’ learning preferences, Peoples said he gave a survey to peers asking they prioritizes the learning styles of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. He recommended faculty members to schedule workshops and meetings “pertaining to the principals’ education. Why is it important and what we can do to help encourage it. What aspects make a good teacher?”
“At the beginning of the year, I asked tenth-graders how they liked their transition into the high school,” Peoples said. “They said they liked it a lot but did not quite understand some things teachers were teaching.”
Immediately after the students spoke, board members and some audience members clapped.
Shortly thereafter, Watson Chapel High School Principal Kristy Sanders approached a reporter to say she did not know about the existence of this program and had not known Watson Chapel High School had taken surveys of their classmates.
“The 35-minute lunch period was approved by the school board,” Sanders said. “It was not a high school decision. That was something that was already in place.”
Sanders objected to Etim having the Watson Chapel High School students speak at the board meeting without having contacted her.
“The surveys did not come through the principal’s office to even conduct the surveys,” Sanders said. “This is the first I’ve ever heard of the whole thing tonight. I am just floored because I was totally blind to all this. It’s like a bashing of the high school from someone who doesn’t even work here.”
As Sanders was speaking with a reporter, Etim returned to the board room and apologized to Sanders “if it came across the wrong way.”
“We’re under Department of Justice guidelines [per a lawsuit],” Sanders told Etim. “We can’t suspend a kid for this or that. We all think the rules should be a lot stricter but that’s nothing to bash us about because we are under strict federal guidelines by the Department of Justice. … The moment of silence, the state department reviewed that years ago.”
Etim said she emailed the superintendents of the participating districts including Watson Chapel Superintendent Dr. Connie Hathorn to inform them about the existence of the program and that the program is not a forum to bash schools. Sanders told Etim that teachers are already using three methods of teaching and cautioned against making general statements. Etim acknowledged Sanders and said she “does not want to override your authority.”