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Summit gives students opportunity to 'take ownership' of their education

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While Simon Cox videos, Paonia junior class president Sophia Cox facilitates a discussion group at the 2019 Paonia/Hotchkiss junior-senior high school Student Summit. The annual summits are intended to give students a voice and take ow

What can Delta County schools do to better prepare students for the future?

What classes, programs and activities would students like to change or add to their educational options?

What can schools do to help all students feel valued and have self-worth?

What gets students excited to go to school?

These were just some of the more than 15 questions put before Paonia and Hotchkiss junior and senior high school students at the annual Student Summit. Hosted last Wednesday by the Paonia Junior-Senior High School student government, the summit gives students in grades 7-12 an opportunity to voice their opinions on a number of topics. They also provide district and school administration an opportunity to listen and learn from their students.

"I think it's important that we all hear from you, and that we all take ownership in our education," district superintendent Caryn Gibson told the roughly 50 students participating in the summit. "This is your education."

Delta County School District 50J administration began holding summits in all of its communities about five years ago as a way to hear what students have to say on a variety of issues related to education, community, and life in general: student relations with fellow students and school staff, what makes a community great, life beyond high school, and what students would want to see in their schools and communities should they return to the area as adults.

District and school administrators, board members, and long-time educators attended the summit, not to participate, but to listen.

Participating students are all play a role in student government. So that the entire student body is represented in the comments, student leaders posed questions to other students ahead of the summit. Their comments, said student moderator and PHS junior class treasurer, Katya Schwieterman, are reflected in the responses.

Following a series of "ice-breaker exercises," students break into five groups, each attending five stations to discuss specific questions and to participate in student-facilitated group discussions. They can also share their thoughts on sticky notes, which are posted for others to read. After rotating through the stations, facilitators give a brief summary of the responses.

On what classes or programs students would like to change or add, sophomore Lauryn Kiefer said students want a class that teaches basic skills needed after graduation, like changing oil in a car, cooking and cleaning, balancing a checkbook and preparing income taxes.

On students' favorite method of learning, group discussion and outdoor learning were mentioned, but the most preferred method, "By a long shot," was hands-on learning "to engage students in a learning environment," said junior Sophia Cox.

On how to give students a feeling of value and self-worth, "students need a positive environment," said Cox. "Adults can contribute in many ways, including focusing on positive things students do rather than focusing on the negative."

On what students are proud of in their school and community, "A lot of people said they are very proud of their open relationships with their teachers," said senior Taralee Mautz. "There's a very one-on-one connection with teachers." Students also take pride in getting along with other students, in the many academic programs available, and their athletics programs, "because it shows their school spirit" and brings the student body together.

On small acts students and staff can perform to make school a better place, Hotchkiss students want a new gym floor to replace their worn-out, uneven floor, while Paonia wants a track, said Mautz. "I know those aren't exactly small acts, but those are things that could make our schools a better place."

On what gets students excited to come to school, "They like that social aspects of seeing their friends and knowing they can go and talk to people and have relationships with their teachers that they couldn't have in a bigger school," said senior Jade Ellenberger.

For the first time in summit history, students recorded the summit and will produce a video for presentation to the Delta County School District 50J school board and the community.

"Your voice is very, very important," said Gibson. And the district is listening. "Due to these conversations," last year the district incorporated life skills in some of the schools and made improvements at some of the facilities. Moving forward, said Gibson, a track for PHS and a new gym floor at HHS "are some of the things the district will be looking at."

Comments are also considered beyond the school district. The results of last year's summits were incorporated into updating the 2018 Delta County Master Plan. County staff worked directly with the district to engage students in the process, said Delta County community and economic director Elyse Casselberry. In writing the master plan, "We're thinking 20 years in the future and what should we be doing today so that in 20 years our county continues to be a great place."

The school district, Delta County, and student advisory groups worked together to form the questions, ensuring that they encompassed both school and community. "You can see throughout the document the places where the ideas that you came up with are reflected."

This year, the county is working on a project to update its land use regulations. Again, student comments will be considered, said Casselberry. In commenting about the need for prosperity for the future, new jobs, a desire for better connections throughout the communities, "You guys basically become the youth voice" in that process.

As the summit came to a close, everyone was given an opportunity to respond to a two-part question in an open forum: Over a lifetime, workers can expect to experience many kinds of jobs, tasks and responsibilities. How has your education prepared you for this challenge? And is there anything you haven't had an opportunity to share today that you are proud or happy about?

Among the responses:

"When we do go out into the real world we are as best prepared to take the direction that we want to take, but also to be able to deal with anything unexpected that is thrown at us."

"A lot of kids who graduate after taking AP (Advanced Placement) classes say that college is a lot easier and classes seem so much easier. Even if you're not going to college, AP classes teach many valuable lessons."

School teaches the basics, "But I think, most importantly, school teaches you life lessons and things that are going to apply to the job: time management, how to deal with stress, how to deal with waking up and being at school at 8 in the morning and staying here all day. I think that's what we should really be taking out of high school."

"Everyone in college is going to be as smart as, if not smarter than you. I think what really separates us is work ethic."

"Whether it's academics or athletics, I've learned how to become more self-aware of my strengths and weaknesses."

"It's all self-awareness. Who do you want to be? Be aware of who you, yourself, are creating and what you're going to create for everyone else."

"You can't become a millionaire with minimum-wage worth ethic . . . You've got to really work for it if you want something. It's there, but you have to put your best foot forward."

"You learn how to work as a team on your projects . . .

You learn how to manage your time to get those things done."

Teachers "not only teach you what you need to learn to continue on in life, but they show you the kind of person you want to be, or in bad moments, the kind of person you don't want to be."

"Thank you all for sharing your ideas, said Schwieterman. "Because, you know, we are the young generation. It's undeniable. We are the ones who are going to take the world by storm the next time."

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