Gathering input: Student advisory council recommends individualized curriculum, additional counseling staff

Michael Smith
Members of the Oklahoma State Department of Education Student Advisory Council collaborate during their first meeting of the year on Friday. Three Carter County students were appointed to the 104-member council in December 2019.

Since 2016, Oklahoma State Department of Education Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has relied on a group of students from across the state to offer her administration first-hand feedback about public education. The most recent Student Advisory Council met with Oklahoma’s top education official last Friday to provide input about policy, legislation and curriculum.

Among the 104 juniors and seniors appointed to the most recent council are three Carter County students who contributed to the conversations. Students from Fox, Healdton and Plainview high schools attended the Friday summit where individualized curriculum and mental health were major topics of discussion for them.

For Hofmeister, the general takeaway from the full council was a need for a more useful curriculum. She said students on the council repeatedly told her that financial literacy classes currently required before graduation are inadequate.

“They really want to have a broader discussion beyond the graduation requirement to feel prepared for accepting college loans or understanding the lease that they may sign,” she said.

For the three local students who all attended the Friday meeting, providing individualized curriculum for students and more counseling staff for schools could be keys in improving the quality of public education in Oklahoma.

“I learned that the school I go to is pretty lucky for the size that we are,” said Fox High School senior Bree Phelps. She said fellow Foxes regularly participate in school organizations and that Fox counselors are helpful in preparing her classmates for life outside of school.

What the Friday council meeting taught her was more about the issues her peers across the state are facing. “The main topic was about mental health and how it’s just so stressful in school,” Phelps said.

Healdton High School senior Joshua Harvey attended the Friday meeting and took part in talks about school counselors. He said students worked in small groups to identify problems facing public schools and then tried to devise solutions to those problems.

While in these groups, Harvey said he started to see similarities between his school experience and that of his peers in other parts of Oklahoma. “A lot of the problems that the student had at their school, we’ve had at our school,” he said of a fellow student who spoke about a statewide shortage of counselors.

Plainview High School senior Jentri Rayburn said she is glad to attend such a relatively small school because she and many other students personally know counselors and other staff.

Regardless of the close bonds, she said students may not necessarily want to overburden staff they know is already stretched thin. “We kind of talked about in my group how counselors always have a lot on their plate,” Rayburn said. “Often times students feel like they can be a burden to them.”

The shortage of school counselors is already being addressed by the state education department. Earlier this month, Hofmeister briefed lawmakers on a three-year, $57.4 million proposal to improve the student-to-counselor ratio in Oklahoma schools. That budget request is still being considered by the state legislature.

Past Student Advisory Councils have spurred policy change and even prompted lawmakers to draft legislation. Hofmeister said a policy of administering end-of-year standardized testing was updated to now allow ACT or SAT testing for high school students. She said the update adds more value for students while also meeting state testing requirements.

“We take all of what we learn and it really does direct changes in policy and changes in law,” Hofmeister said.

The idea of a personalized curriculum was another important topic for local members of Hofmeister’s Student Advisory Council. Phelps said that personalized learning plans could enhance public education and reduce stress for students.

Rayburn also said that a more personalized school experience could be helpful to the learning process. “We focused on how we want to make education more suitable for every person, not just specific career paths,” Rayburn said.

Hofmeister said previous advisory councils prompted a two-year pilot program at a handful of Oklahoma schools to require students to complete an education plan each year of their high school career. That program rolled out statewide this year and will be a graduation requirement for current high school freshmen.

“It confirms the need and that students really want this and it’s got to be a process, not just a checklist,” she said. “For these students today, it underscores how we have to do a better job catching up to bridge for students who don’t necessarily have that requirement right now.”

The Student Advisory Council will meet again late next month to continue identifying problem areas and developing potential solutions for public school students across Oklahoma. Hofmeister said the council will again be called upon to take part in a panel discussion during professional development for teachers this summer. She wants the panel to give teachers a glimpse into what students wish their teachers knew.

“They’ll actually be able to answer specific questions that teachers ask of them during that live session,” she said.