Our Kent County school’s need for improved student understanding

This article is part of Rapid Growth's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Kent County youth in partnership with Rapid Growth staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, Elsie Ries and Addison Weed examine student inclusivity at their school.

Our public school is located in Kent County, Michigan, and is predominantly white, which restricts the diversity of perspectives displayed in our class discussions.

As high school students, we have noticed that our school could reap the benefits of greater diversification and inclusive dialogue. By encouraging increased inclusivity and acceptance, our school can create a more open and comprehensive mindset among students. 

We wish to commence, via our story, a conversation regarding our aspiration to craft a more accepting and inclusive school experience for all of our peers and why we believe it will benefit us all in our future lives and education.

We interviewed Ezequiel Gonzalez, a student of color who attends our high school and is more commonly referred to as Q by his classmates, who is making significant efforts to improve topics of discussion within our student community. 

“I’m working with the diversity council and trying to work with [our school news] to educate the student population,” Q says. “We recently went to the [local] middle school to talk about our values and recruiting [for the diversity council] next year.” 

Q is working with our school's diversity council — an open space where dialogue can happen and voices can be raised together within the school — to bring these issues to the attention of others. He is taking great strides to create a more comforting educational setting for his peers. 

When having a brief conversation with Q regarding his efforts, he mentioned that he spoke with our principal about getting showcased on our school news to discuss Black History Month, Women’s History Month and other diversity-centered events. 

“What I’m doing on [our televised school news] is [creating] a schedule where I find special events happening around the world and give the significance and history of it,” says Q. 

He aims to shed light on issues encouraging more culture to be brought into our curriculum. 

“I think we could, as a school, recognize different cultures and events happening around the world,” says Q.  

There is still work to be done

When inquiring about what he wishes to see prioritized in classroom lectures, Q says, “Potentially what events or significant holidays that are happening/celebrated by other cultures,” going on to suggest discussions on the Islamic holiday, Ramadan.

It’s an effort that school administration, faculty and staff have helped support. 

“They seem to be supportive and [willing to] help me. I talked to some staff to see what they’re doing. I’m not going to disclose who they were, but they are primarily working with other staff in diversity and inclusion.” 

The pie chart illustrates our school's population in terms of race. Out of the entire student body, 91% of students are white. This can allow for people of color, like Q, to feel more isolated than their white peers. 

“It doesn’t affect me a whole lot day to day,” Q says of the discrepancy, “but sometimes it feels lonely not having people similar to me.”                        

It is estimated that 1,130 students attend our school in Kent County, and Q is definitely not the only one who has felt marginalized and excluded. Alongside students of color feeling left behind in our class lessons, numerous students have felt rejected by the administration concerning their mental health and their gender identity. 

Ky Albert, a 2022 graduate who identifies as non-binary (identifying their gender as somewhere between male and female or outside either male or female), opened up to us on their high school experience before switching to virtual schooling. 

“Honestly, the [school] counselors are good for switching schedules and classes, and that’s it,” Albert says. “I took a lot of absences because of being in the hospital and [I] never caught up with the workload. [The counselors] don’t [have] a lot of consideration for kids like that.” 

When referring to their gender identity, Albert informs us that their school had failed to properly address them during graduation. Instead of using their current name, they put Albert’s dead name on their diploma. A dead name is the name that a person who no longer identifies with their gender assigned at birth was given. 

“They had my dead name on my diploma, but I had already legally changed my name to Ky, so it was kind of outrageous that I had to tell [the school] to reprint it,” Albert says. “At the beginning of the school year, I had filled out a name change form for the yearbook and for my diploma so I was well before any deadline.” 

Creating a safer space for all students

A study done by GLSEN in 2019 shows over half of LGBTQ+ students have heard or dealt with some form of verbal harassment regarding sexual orientation or gender identity. As students in a majority cishet — students who identify as their birth gender and heterosexual — school system, we have witnessed such discrimination firsthand. 

Teaching inclusivity in schools can help mold young minds to be more accepting of their pupils. Students that have attended our school, both past and present, have openly discussed the lack of respect for transgender and nonbinary students, specifically when handling their deadnames. 

When a school shows a lack of empathy for students trying to transition within their administration, it only makes it harder to focus on daily academic tasks. Having to battle to be referred to by their appropriate name and pronouns is a daunting enough task as it is. 

Bringing into consideration these crucial points of view, if those who have the power begin to take the time to listen to the advice young voices are giving them, they may be able to further comprehend the experiences of these students and commence greater leaps for widespread embracive conversation within our public school. 

After all, students are experts in their own bodies. They know what is best for themselves and can more clearly identify unfair treatment inside their peer circles or from the staff. Their voices and lived experiences are vital for taking the next steps toward a more divergent dialogue.

“I feel like they are addressing it,” Q says. “The teachers provide the opportunity to communicate from building to building. If I give it more time and I do more, we can accomplish more things. So I will give it more time.

To learn more about Rapid Growth's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click here. This series is made possible via underwriting sponsorships from the Steelcase Foundation, Frey Foundation and Kent ISD

Addison Weed and Elsie Ries are sophomore students at a local high school. Both share interests rooted in literature and a passion to further improve acceptance and inclusivity in the world. In their debut work, Our Kent County school’s need for improved student understanding, they discuss the issues they and their pupils face within their school and how students are taking a stand to improve discussions within their school.
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