A student group uses continuous improvement to solve complex problems they see in their schools.

“I think if you want to engage young people, all you have to do is ask. Students want to invoke change. It is not hard, just ask and get the word out.”

Students say

“A key principle of improvement is being user-centered. This is how we can honor and include the people, perspectives, and relationships most affected by the system we are trying to improve while also building a community that sees all of its members as agents for change.”

Adults Say

Description

What?

A group of students from across the district meet together to identify problems in the system, see the system that produces those problems, and create and test change ideas.


Why?

In Baltimore City Schools, student involvement in improvement efforts is an equity imperative. “We must be inclusive of the people, perspectives, and relationships most affected by the system and build a community that sees all members as agents of change. This is the most direct way to practice the improvement mindset: be human-centered,” said Christina Ross, Project Manager, Blueprint Initiatives


How?

Baltimore City Schools has built multiple structures to incorporate student voice and agency into continuous improvement projects in schools and at the district level. The Youth Ambassador program is organized by the district Youth Engagement Team with support from the BMore Me program. 

There are 24 Youth Ambassadors from 12 schools who built a network with each other through various activities facilitated by trusted adults. Each participating school appointed a staff member (liaison) who helped decide on a school-based process for selecting students to participate. The Ambassador fellowship is organized at the district level, but students’ improvement work focuses on their own school. 

Youth ambassadors examined data, conducted their own empathy interviews, and used other improvement tools to see the system and identify problems they wanted to solve. Their role was explained like this: 

As Youth Ambassador and student leaders in your school, your work will be completing an impact project which will be designed to improve a complex problem in your school.

To do this, you’ll need to first understand your school as a system, and how different people experience that system. That information will help you create an idea to solve a problem or challenge in your school that will positively impact your school.

As they used various improvement methodologies to see the system, students refined what they wanted to work on. One pair of students, for example, saw a trend in survey data that concerned them. “We gave a group of students a survey. One of the questions was how likely are you to speak up if you are being bothered,” described a student. “We saw that a handful of students said they wouldn’t speak up. We wanted to fix that problem because you should be able to speak up. We’re trying to improve our schools for the better.” 

After identifying a problem, the next step was for students to create and test change ideas to tackle a root cause of the problem. In the school described above, students designed Leaders in Training (LIT) to build leadership and communication skills among students. Examples of other student-designed projects included: 

  • Real World Fridays. Ambassadors discovered that many classroom topics weren’t interesting to students, so they helped design a focus on real-world problems every Friday in class. 
  • Study Group. Ambassadors discovered that many students were distracted while learning from home, so they designed a club where “skills beyond the subject are taught, and student fellowship is developed through fun activities.” 

Youth Ambassadors receive a stipend for their participation and a budget to fund their change ideas.

Explore More

Session 1_ Introduction to systems thinking.pdf

See the slide deck that introduced Youth Ambassadors to systems thinking.

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Guiding Principles

Scaffold and differentiate supports for students. Youth Ambassadors have the time and space to learn about the systems they are trying to improve. “One of the reasons students often aren’t taken seriously is because we don’t take time to give them the whole context so they can really move the work,” explained Christina Ross, Project Manager, Blueprint Initiatives. “Once youth have that context, they change their focus to what they had control over.”  For Youth Ambassadors, this meant providing youth with the information they needed about the structures, systems, and policies in schools related to the areas where they were working on change. 

The Ambassadors example also shows how students themselves can participate in all stages of continuous improvement. In this example, they engaged deeply in many activities related to seeing the system. However, learning about improvement focused on the process, not the  continuous improvement language. Interviews were just called interviews.  The term “change idea” was simply “things we can try.” The idea of “root causes” was explained and experienced. 

Shift the mindsets, power and privilege of adults. A priority in the work to center students in Baltimore is to shift adult mindsets. “Students want to be heard, but sometimes adults don’t know what they don’t know. So, adults don’t know how to hear and listen to students,” said Christina Ross.