Student-Superintendent Cabinet gives students a venue and a voice in Essexville-Hampton Schools

Since he was a teen himself, Justin Ralston has been invested in making sure the voices of students were elevated. He created a newspaper at his Indiana high school to give himself and his classmates a voice and a place to raise issues. Now, as the Superintendent of Essexville-Hampton Schools, Ralston has created a Student-Superintendent Cabinet to help ensure that students of the district are heard and involved.

Before coming to the Essexville-based district in August, Ralston served as a school leader for nine years in Washington D.C. At both the preK-8 and high school buildings he served, Ralston created student advisory committees in order to balance out what can sometimes be an adult-centric environment. Read more about Ralston in this Jan. 12 Route Bay City article.

Superintendent Justin Ralston invited students from Cramer Junior HIgh School and Garber High School to serve on a Student-Superintendent Cabinet. (Photo courtesy of Essexville-Hampton Public Schools)“Regardless of my position, I have kept that structure. It’s near and dear to my heart, so it was important to be able to get that here,” Ralston says.

Early in the school year, Ralston and his team put out applications to all of the students at Cramer Junior High School and Garber High School. A committee was set to evaluate the applications, but in the end that was not necessary.

Ralston says, “I made the recommendation that we just admit every student that applied. So it’s a bit of a bigger group, but all of the students who expressed interest and applied are included.”

Superintendent Justin RalstonOverall, 17 students make up the high school cabinet, and 14 students represent the junior high. Currently, the groups meet separately once a month for an hour during their lunch periods, though Ralston hopes to get them together for a culminating project in May.

One of the students serving the high school cabinet is 17-year-old senior Caden Maze. Maze says he was excited by the opportunity and is looking forward to the impact he can make.

“My goal was to help the community and help the schools. My two younger brothers (6th and 8th grade at Cramer) will be coming through Garber and to be able to help them out the best I can and to make changes that I wish would have been done over my four years would be huge,” Maze says.

One of the first tasks asked of Maze and the other cabinet members was to take a survey provided by Ralston that asked them to rank different topics based on importance.

“The survey included things like academics, extra-curricular activities, the STEM center, the facilities, school spirit, social-emotional issues and counseling support, bullying, and those sorts of topics. They ended up ranking them by importance, and then the rest of our year together will be spent going in order of what they ranked to be most important to them,” Ralston explains.

Up until February, the meetings have been more general in nature. Ralston began each session by asking students what was on their minds and if they had any questions. So far, discussions have included school safety, issues and solutions related to cell phones, and the ever-important topic of snow day criteria. In February, however, the two groups prepared to dig into the top-ranked issues from the surveys.

Maze says, “As a [high school] group, the number one topic we have discussed and think is most important is academics. In my eyes, academics is really important and should be the main discussion…Course offerings are an issue. Things have become outdated and need some change. There is also a lot of unnecessary testing in the classroom. We have been talking about getting rid of some of that, too.”

In order to best address academic concerns, both Ralston and the Director of Curriculum, Jamie Hales, will meet with students. At the junior high, where facilities were ranked number one, Ralston will take along Director of Facilities and Operations Mike Gwizdala to discuss the students’ concerns.

Ralston has been impressed by what the students have had to contribute so far, but not at all surprised.

“I wouldn’t say surprised because anytime I have been around students, that’s where brilliance comes from and some of the best ideas come from. They have absolutely met my expectations,” Ralston says.

In fact, as the district works on building its five-year strategic plan, Ralston went right to the students.

“They were the first group I did our strategic planning engagement conversations with. I was excited to hear their thoughts on how do we ensure academic excellence, how do we do a better job of supporting the whole child, how do we better support our teachers and staff, and how do we engage our community. Those are the four components of our strategic plan. They absolutely met my expectations with their ideas,” Ralston says.

Maze has been equally impressed with Ralston’s efforts as superintendent.

“Mr. Ralston came into the auditorium in September or October and he gave a speech about the changes he would like to make to the school, and he immediately had a great impact on me and I know a lot of other students, too,” Maze says.

“We have had superintendents that have been good, but he has proven to be better. He truly cares about the community and is brand new to the area. So it’s nice to have somebody who has their own vision and doesn’t know anyone. He does a really good job staying involved and getting to know the students and what it’s like at Garber and all of the Essexville Hampton schools.”
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