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Written By Sue Trecartin | Published by the Waterbury Record, Thursday, February 11, 2016 6:00 am

It takes a community to transform a school. Students and teachers at Harwood Union High School are in the process of doing just that and making huge strides.

Says Co-Principal Amy Rex, “There is so much change, and change that is different than any other educational change that has ever been. We need a community that’s engaged in a different way, teachers to practice in a different way, systems and structures need to be different, and our policies need to be different.

“We’re doing all of that simultaneously. It’s overwhelming and it’s exciting, but I think the most exciting part is that students are a part of it, and they should be because this is their education.”

Harwood embraced the concept of students and teachers working as partners five years ago when it formed a YATST group — Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together. The current group of 12 students and two teacher advisers has sown the seeds of partnership in multiple ways.

One that bore fruit last March was an all-school dialogue. When asked if the majority of students would give a positive response to the question “Do you feel you have a voice?” junior Maura Riley said, “You would get a positive response, but I’m not sure you would get a positive response that actually means ‘right now.’ You would get kids saying, ‘I don’t have a voice,’ but they would want to have a voice.”

The group analyzed written feedback from the all-school dialogue and is planning two mini-dialogues this year, one after midterms and another in the spring, focused on specific issues.

Significant progress has been made on a student-teacher feedback system. Senior Olivia Grimble and Riley say they have been doing feedback-related work with teachers for about three years. It will soon become part of the curriculum so it’s mandatory for teachers to give the online survey.

“Starting with the next round, our YATST group is probably going to be soliciting teachers to give some kind of data back on a more global level,” said adviser Marcus Grace. “For example, ‘Which data points did you focus on or what changes are you trying to make?’”

Adviser Ellen Berrings says the feedback system is a good example of how the student leadership groups work together.

“Three years is the time it’s taken YATST to create the tool, test the tool, refine the tool,” Berrings said. The student government comes up with an idea and sends it to the administration. “If it passes that gate, then it goes to the teachers through the department head structure and then it goes to the students through the student government structure. They’re the decision-making body for the students in that regard. The way YATST is different is that, whatever they do is about student-teacher partnership, they consistently ask the question: How do we do this together?”

Grimble says YATST “has made school seem less overwhelming because I feel like I am able to do something about it. … It’s really valuable to be doing this, even though it won’t affect me, because it has provided me with leadership opportunities, more leadership skills, and just knowing that it’s going to be better for the kids who come after.”

Riley says, “I just feel like I know what’s going to happen more because I’m already thinking about what I want to do. When we did the (student-teacher) survey, I was thinking about it even before it was implemented in class — different things that I thought could be different in that class.”

Rex says the student government does a lot of fundraising, some advocacy work, and a lot of communication for the whole student body through class councils and student class meetings.

“But they also take a look at the work that YATST is doing … and say, ‘What sort of a role can we take that might connect to that?’ … It’s all about having an all-inclusive community. I think everybody has that goal in mind. Each of the groups have a different role and bring different strengths to that.”

Harwood’s co-principals worked with a consultant for a good part of a year on building a leadership team that includes five administrators and five teachers, breaking out of the department silo model and building five learning communities with different teachers from those who had typically been included.

That group worked together for a year, and one of its goals was to have students participate. “What sort of decision-making roles will people have? We had to figure out all those pieces,” Rex says.

The leadership team meets four days a week during the school day, so the students are always in attendance. They are receiving a full elective credit for the year because it is a big commitment and includes homework.

“We had no idea what the impact would be of having students on the leadership team until we got started,” Rex says. “Whether we’re asking them for insight on decisions that we’re making around how to run a faculty meeting or how to communicate with students, their insight is always so incredible, so refreshing. At this point, I think our team can’t imagine functioning without students.”

Sue Trecartin writes stories about school change for UP for Learning. She taught language arts for 18 years and retired from Hazen Union School in 2013.