Student Voice is Making a Difference at Crescent Town ES
By Louise Brown -- January 2019
There’s a school in Toronto’s east end so rooted in a high-rise community, it has its own walkway overpass to one of the apartments. But the concrete setting of Crescent Town Elementary School also comes with a lack of play space, except for a steep slope and some asphalt surrounded by fence. There is a playground, but it’s too small for this booming school near Victoria Park and Danforth Ave.
“Our school yard while quite vast in space is also challenging for students to navigate during play,” admits Principal Harpreet Ghuman. “We have 600 children from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 4. There is very little greenspace and a small playground for our students to access which is not the case in all schools. You want to talk about inequity?”
In fact, Grade 4 student Rania Mehreen did want to talk about it, and so did other members of an innovative Crescent Town group called Student Voice Crew.
This circle of young advisors wrote letters to Ghuman asking the Toronto District School Board to install some basketball hoops. Ghuman passed their letters on to the board, and their voices got action – as the Crescent Town kids are proud to tell you.
“A lot of students used to throw basketballs against the walls and we were afraid the glass would break, so we asked the principal and vice-principal to get basketball nets – and it worked!” boasted 9-year-old Rania at a recent meeting of Crescent Town’s Student Voice Crew with Ghuman and Vice-Principal Heather Myrvold. “We got the nets, and a lot of students are using them now.”
Ghuman is convinced the Student Voice Crew’s written request helped persuade the TDSB to speed up meeting the school’s hoop dreams. This is important for a school board that has committed to listening more closely to the student voice, in its drive to strengthen equity and student well-being.
“The kids were asking me for basketball nets for over a year, and then the Student Voice Crew wrote a letter to me, which I passed onto the board, and the nets came in June,” recalls Ghuman. “It helped me leverage the board, because I had the student voice. I was the happiest person, because the kids were holding me accountable.”
Ghuman and Myrvold set up the groups two years ago – one for Grades 3 and 4, and one for Grades 1 and 2 – to give kids more input into school decision-making. Less structured than a traditional student council (there’s no executive; it’s a lunchtime drop-in at which any student is welcome), the Student Voice Crew gives students a chance to tell Ghuman and Myrvold what they think is working, and what needs improvement, from more garbage cans in student bathrooms to more space for the guitar club. The students themselves decide when they think another meeting is needed.
On this day, Ghuman wants to make sure students understand that their input helped land the basketball nets.
“The facilities managers saw the letters you wrote about how your school needs basketball nets. How do you feel about that?” he asked the group of 14 children at this meeting of the Grade 3-4 Student Voice Crew. “Your voices and letters are a big reason why we have the nets now.”
The students also lobbied successfully for a game of SquareTag to be painted on the asphalt, for more Chromebook laptops in classrooms and a fresh coat of paint in one of the hallways.
They also asked for world music to be played for a few minutes before O Canada each morning over the PA system, in languages that reflect their own varied backgrounds.
“Last November we started playing different Indigenous artists before announcements for Aboriginal Education Month, and at the end of the month, the students asked us, ‘What other kinds of music can we hear?’” recalls Vice-Principal Heather Myrvold. “They had suggestions, so we started to play music in some of their home languages; Urdu, Arabic, Bangla,” the language spoken in Bangladesh and the Bengali part of India. A majority of students come from Bangladesh.
The music CDs come sometimes from teachers – especially those who run English as a Second Language classes – and sometimes from students and their families.
“One father from Bangladesh heard a song from his country we were playing one morning connected to International Mother Language Day. It was a political song with historical significance in his country. Many lives were lost in Bangladesh in the fight for cultural and linguistic freedoms, so the song had great significance for many families at Crescent Town.When that father heard it, he was quite emotional,” says Ghuman. “He felt validated. It’s part of our ongoing commitment to honour the students’ heritage.”
Crescent Town takes other steps to make sure staff understands the community in which its students live. Ghuman organized a neighbourhood learning walk for teachers to meet with local agencies, community centres and visit a mosque to speak with the Imam. In another exercise to help staff understand the students’ “lived experience,” Crescent Town gave students cameras to take photos of what is important to them in their neighbourhood. Ghuman was delighted to see how many of their photos featured nature – trees, close-ups of flowers, birds, pine cones. It showed him and other staff members that although there is a lack of green on school property, these families make up for it with frequent visits to parks and nearby ravines.
“As educators, we have our own biases about our students – we often think we know what their lives are like, but we can never know for sure unless we ask or spend some time in their community,” says Ghuman, who grew up in Jane and Finch and says he knows how hurtful negative stereotypes can be, and how important it is to give students a platform to present their actual lives.
At the age of 9, Aashni Kalagarla already understands Student Voice Crew gives students access to those in power at their school. “I came because if you have any problems here, you can just tell them to fix the problem, and mostly it works. Without Student Voice Crew, if you had an idea, the principal and vice-principal might be too busy to meet.”
What concerns did students bring to this particular meeting? They want more extra-curricular clubs, especially ones open to younger siblings in Grade 1. Maybe a LEGO club? A Puzzle club? How about an Art Club? Ghuman welcomes the suggestions. There’s already a Guitar Club that’s wildly popular, but the kids say it needs a bigger room.
There’s more. How about fresh paint on more hallways? The washrooms could be cleaner and have more garbage pails, too. And, emboldened by having a voice, one of the students suggests school “prefects” – a leadership role many of these students have – should all be given walkie-talkies for recess, so they can communicate with each other as they help keep the playground peace.
Ghuman and Myrvold smile. That’s one ask that’s not likely to get the green light, but it was worth a shot. You dream big when you know your voice is heard.