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At HFCSD, Students Have a Voice

Students at Hoosick Falls Central School (HFCS) are not only allowed, but are encouraged to speak up for what they believe in or feel passionate about. The school offers several opportunities for students to let their voices be heard: Panther TV, Panther Post (the student newspaper), and individual opportunities to advocate for themselves are just a few examples.

Encouraging Student Voice is not new at HFCS, but is something that has been cultivated for over a decade. In fact, students and their thoughts and opinions have proven to be the driving forces behind the culture shift at HFCS to integrate social-emotional learning alongside academic learning.

The Panther Post was established 11 years ago as an expression and extension of student thought on contemporary issues. The Post began with a small staff that first year and has grown steadily since then. Panther Post writers today can take a class and earn credits for producing the newsletter. While the teachers are there to guide the production of the newspaper, the topics and commentary are solely created by students.

“It’s their education and their building,” stated Sabrina Coll, one of the faculty advisors for the newspaper. “They deserve to have their perspective and opinions honored. What they see as important needs to be important to us.”

“Panther Post really is for the student body. We can work on any topic and it will be reviewed without judgement,” said one Panther Post writer.

“For me,” said another, “it’s broadened what I thought writing could be. Our teachers guide us about what could be a possible article or help us with different questions, but we get to work on what interests us.”

“I like to write about things from a senior’s perspective,” said one student. “I feel it is important to represent my class.”

“For many students, high school is their first experience as young adults to advocate for themselves. We encourage and support that in whatever way we can.” said Coll.

Each year the Post’s editorial staff has been driven to examine and report on local, regional, national, and global issues from their perspective.

“We don’t advise them on what to write about or what their opinion on a topic should be,” added Coll. “They have the freedom to express what’s on their minds.”

In 2016, HFCS added Panther TV as a complement to the Post. Panther TV is the in-house TV station where high school students film daily announcements and film clips on other subjects that interest them. They narrate, edit, and direct the broadcasts, which are shared during homeroom. Broadcasts often include “Panther Positivity,” a segment that includes videos meant to inspire and encourage students to evaluate their thoughts and actions or to think differently.

The creation of a student-run TV station has provided students with another form of communication where they have the freedom to independently develop their own topics and commentary and share them with their peers. With each broadcast, they have the opportunity to set the tone for student learning and inquiry for the day.

“Panther TV grew out of the desire to improve our morning announcements,” said Brian Bushner, the teacher who oversees Panther TV. “We wondered, ‘How do we help our kids express themselves more, connect with the school more?’ We know that happens peer-to-peer. We made sure the whole process of getting the equipment and setting up Panther TV involved our students; it was all driven by their feedback.”

Panther TV has been instrumental in providing a platform for communicating school tragedies, key political events, and other serious matters as well as more routine items such as lunch menus, club schedules, and dress code concerns.

“At Panther TV, we can really do anything,” said one student. “[Mr. Bushner] has always said, “If you have an idea or a skit, tell me and we’ll make it happen.”

Another part of Student Voice at HFCS is allowing safe expression of student opinion about timely and sometimes difficult topics. There have been many opportunities when the administration has supported students as they responded to national issues.

In April of 2018, students in fifth through twelfth grade crafted ways to advocate for better school safety after the school shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., and other schools. Fifth graders held a memorial for those killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and a small group of high school students created a film commenting on school violence and the 17 student deaths.

All high school students were invited to create posters stating their thoughts on school safety. They were also given the tools needed to register to vote. All of this was student-driven and was done peacefully and respectfully. Each student had the option to participate or not.

Although these avenues sound more task-oriented, there is social and emotional growth that happens when students are allowed to speak up and they see their opinions are valued.

“We’re trying to get students to recognize their own emotions and act on them in a positive fashion,” said High School Principal Patrick Dailey. “Sometimes that’s having a discussion, sometimes that’s standing up for yourself, and sometimes that’s advocating for something that’s maybe not personal, but something they’re passionate about.”

“We had one student who graduated last year who was really very shy,” said Bushner. “He liked to do things behind the scenes at Panther TV and was not interested in being on camera. One day we needed him on-camera because no one else was available. He soon became our lead anchor.

“Outside of that, he really came out of his shell at school and changed his whole outlook. He became more active in different clubs, was a lot more positive in the hallways with his peers, participated more in classes, and became more self-confident. By the time he graduated, he had grown so much.”

Another Panther TV student attested to the social-emotional growth that having a voice provides: “I have a lot of social anxiety…I feel like this has really helped with it. It pushes us out of our comfort zone.”