How can we bring student voice into even more experiences? That’s the question Hopkins Public Schools has been asking itself. And one of the answers to that question is the Royal Reps internship program.
Now in its second year, Royal Reps was created by Hopkins Public Schools superintendent Dr. Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed in 2018 in response to Hopkins’ Great to World Class strategic visioning process. The District hired 24 students to conduct market research in the community to inform what would later become the Vision 2031 strategic plan. The focus of this year’s summer internship included two projects — market research for the Hopkins early childhood program and planning for the District’s all-staff workshop event in August.
Faith Agboola was one of many Royal Reps from 2018 who returned this summer. She learned about it last year when the superintendent sent her a text encouraging her to apply for a new summer internship that would be entirely student-led. Although Agboola is involved in a lot of activities, sports, and clubs, she had never really had the opportunity to use her voice as a student to inspire or direct systemic change. It appealed to her.
“I jumped right in,” said Agboola. “I wanted to be part of something that was student-led. I am invested in Hopkins and I wanted to be part of the change.”
Relevant work experience
The Royal Rep program is different from other student leadership opportunities in a few key ways. While the experience is guided by adult advisors, it is a truly student-led experience. Students decide how to work together, their schedules, when and where they are going to meet, and how they are going to accomplish the big goals of the work. They are also paid for the hours they put in.
Sara Chovan, early childhood coordinator for Hopkins Public Schools, knew she wanted to work with the Royal Reps after seeing the data they collected last summer as part of the strategic visioning process. This year, she wrote a proposal for Royal Reps to conduct market research for her early childhood program, so she could determine how to better meet the needs of families.
“We can’t make adjustments without hearing feedback from our families about what they really want,” she said. “The information we gather is going to inform shifts
to our programming.”
For the entire summer and even into the fall, the students worked with early childhood supervisor Angela Sandok, who served as a Royal Rep advisor. They designed a questionnaire and created a plan to survey early childhood families throughout the summer, then analyzed the data and presented it to early childhood staff. Their initial findings revealed that parents want world language starting in preschool, more interaction with music, and cultural education.
The idea of taking a big goal for your program and giving it to high school students to complete requires a deep level of trust. It’s not a model that most adults are comfortable with. Chovan admits she was a bit hesitant at first. Would students really be able to demonstrate the follow-through she needed? The students earned her confidence on her first day working with them. After she had explained her high-level vision for the project, she looked around the room and knew that her next step was to get out of their way.
“They got it. I could tell they wanted me to leave because they wanted to get started on the work,” she said. “From that point on, I had complete faith this project was handled.”
The Royal Rep program is an impactful experience for both students and the adult advisors who work with them. Sandok, for example, typically works with very young children and rarely has the opportunity to engage with high school students. One of the goals of Vision 2031 is an E-12 system alignment. Bringing high school students into early childhood spaces and creating opportunities for collaboration and engagement authentically gets at this goal, with much learning from both sides.
“I loved being in spaces with teenagers, and hearing how they talk and seeing how they interact,” said Sandok. “I would love to continue to be an advisor.”
Because the Royal Rep program is a student-led experience, its advisors focus on guiding. They help students think through their ideas, define a clear set of goals, and provide strategies for how to run a productive meeting. Jeremy Reichel, a Hopkins North Junior High teacher, is in his second year of advising the program. He enjoys working with students in a role that is different from a teacher. The dynamics of being a mentor allow him to develop a different relationship with students.
“Many students feel the sense of pressure with academic relationships,” said Reichel. “In this non-academic setting, we really get to see the human side of each other.”
The Royal Rep program empowers students to manage and lead large projects. It’s also an important strategy for capturing student voice. This year, students played a central role in planning the back-to-school workshop for teachers and staff. The theme of the day was centered around love, which is one of Hopkins’ core values. Students gave input on the structure of the day, organized and co-facilitated breakout sessions, and planned and led the morning opening in the auditorium.
“It was a huge task, but many staff said that the Royal Reps were the highlight of their day,” said Allegra Smisek, assistant director of innovation, design and instruction and Royal Rep advisor.
The Royal Reps led several breakout sessions during workshop day. Workshop topics included cultural competency, getting real, and the importance of being a role model. Before creating the sessions, students combed through survey data from last year’s kickoff. They also generated a list of teachers and staff members who they felt demonstrated love and then worked with those teachers to further develop their topics.
For Hopkins High School senior Najma Ahmed, the ability to lead a session for teachers was important. She sees the impact teachers have on students, and she wanted them to understand it as well. She created a teacher seminar called Helpful/Hurtful, which focused on what teachers do to affirm students as well as how they might unintentionally discourage students. For Ahmed, the experience helped her find her voice as well as develop a more rounded perspective about teachers.
“I got to be heard,” said Ahmed. “I learned that the teachers are willing to learn, too, and that everyone makes mistakes.”
Second-year Royal Rep Sophie Norman also appreciated being able to infuse her voice and perspective into meaningful conversations. She facilitated a session called Passion and Personal Choice in the Classroom, which explored how engagement increases when teachers honor what a student is interested in and allow more personal choice in the classroom. When Norman reflects on her high school experience, the ability to control what she learns and how she shows mastery is the change she wants to see.
“We thought that was a big thing the high school was missing, especially before Vision 2031,” she said. “We wanted to bring our excitement to the classroom and give our student perspective.”