At Boston Summer Learning Summit, Partners Commit to Strengthen Youth Voice

Over 100 participants gathered at District Hall to participate in the Boston Summer Learning Summit on March 22, 2016.  Together, they represent the largest cohort of summer partners to date, with the 2016 Boston Summer Learning Community projected to involve over 100 summer sites serving approximately 10,000 students across Greater Boston.

Boston’s Chief of Education Rahn Dorsey opened the event, praising the group for their leadership and expertise: “We’ve worked together to knock down the traditional barriers to learning… The goal is for all youth to be connected to a quality, engaging summer learning opportunity.” Acknowledging the community’s successes, Dorsey challenged the group to maximize student learning and keep ramping up program quality. As Dorsey notes, “when programs have rigor, real world connections, and relevance, youth step up and contribute.”

Youth Panel: Incorporating Youth Voice into Program Design

Increasing opportunities for youth voice constituted the main charge of the day. This focus area emerged from local data trends, which consistently point to youth leadership, choice, and autonomy as an area of collective weakness for summer and school-year partners.

At the event, Boston After School & Beyond released a new report that offers practical strategies and recommendations, detailed by age group, on engaging youth in authentic youth participation and leadership. Developed by Health Resources in Action, the new Policy and Practice Brief was derived from focus groups and key informant interviews from 40 youth from eight program partners.

At the Summit, we were honored to be joined by a panel of young people, who offered insightful feedback on how programs can more meaningfully involve youth in programming. Many thanks to the following four young leaders:

  • Dezaree Williams, 9th Grade, 15 years old, TechBoston Academy
  • Anton Montgomery Jr., 9th grade, 15 years old, TechBoston Academy
  • Vanessa Sylvestre, age 20, senior at Boston International High School.
  • Carlos Acevedo Jr., age 17, senior, Fenway High School

The youth panelists were able to articulate their strengths and areas for growth as leaders. They identified opportunities for leadership and described how those experiences inspired them to take on such responsibilities. In response to the audience question — how have you grown as a leader? —  Anton astutely reflected, “I’m not a great leader yet. I know it’s in me, but I have to keep working on it.”

Insights from the youth panel revealed that adults can support youth choice and leadership through the following approaches: providing information about opportunities, making time to discuss the choices or how the leadership role is going, and supporting youth in a “crash course” on real responsibility.

Immediately following the youth panel, attendees engaged in roundtable discussions in which they identified potential challenges to promoting youth decision-making and strategies to overcome those challenges. Attendees also wrote on cards their personal commitments for “bumping up”  youth voice within their own programs.

Examples of commitments included:

  • Having youth staff participate more frequently in and lead staff meetings.
  • Collecting feedback from students on summer programing, and empowering students to lead the collection of responses.
  • Giving mentors and older students the opportunity and support to lead activities for younger students.

Remarks from the Boston Public Schools

Superintendent Tommy Chang joined the event, reminding participants: “many BPS students don’t get the level of saturation in learning opportunities as their more privileged peers. Summer learning is essential to their success.” Highlighting the group’s recent innovations, Chang spoke to the promising potential of digital badges to reinforce student learning and to serve as a respected credential for future employers. Superintendent Chang closed by reiterating the the need for more year-round coherence between the school year and summer months. “BPS is made better by aligning with your work to create continuity for student learning” said Chang.

Finally, Laryssa Doherty from the BPS Office of Professional Learning presented on leveraging summer as a 5th quarter of learning through cognitively demanding tasks and universal design for learning. Attendees discussed application to their own program settings. Along with all materials from the Summit, Laryssa’s presentation and supporting materials can be found here.

Participants left the event with a strong sense of purpose and a commitment to continue advance youth leadership and voice within their programs. One attendee reiterated the importance of the event’s theme: “We design our programs around youth. It just makes sense to get their feedback on areas we can improve and have them be the spokespersons for our success.”

The Boston Summer Learning Summit was generously sponsored by: