What is School For?

Members of the KSVT Press Corps reflect on the structural level of what school means. Read a lightly edited roundtable transcript from September 26, 2022.

students discussing at table

Members of the KSVT Press Corps reflect on the structural level of what school means. Read a lightly edited roundtable transcript from September 26, 2022.

Aiden (Jefferson County, grade 11)
Michael (Boone County, grade 10)
Raima (Jefferson County, grade 11)
Gunnar (Warren County, grade 12)
Sydney (Jefferson County grade 10)

Minhal Nazeer (Jefferson County, grade 11)
Norah Laughter (Logan County,  first year college student)

MINHAL: What is the purpose of Kentucky schools?

AIDEN: So I think the first thing when determining the purpose of Kentucky schools is to determine the purpose of all schools in general. I did a little bit of prior research and I learned a little bit about the history of school.

Schools were essentially created as a more efficient method for teaching students. There’s always been this common current of needing to pass down knowledge and information from one generation to the next as it was commonly done in families throughout human history.

In America, starting with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were the first ones to mandate and standardize public education. At that time, it was specifically for boys. But what they did was instead of teaching just traditions, they went ahead and taught Religion. They taught Mathematics, Science, Arithmetic, all of these things. Fast forward to 1837 where there’s this guy, Horace Mann, who’s known as the father of the Common School Movement. He taught the basic curriculum for public schools, and that’s what brings us eventually to where we are today.

So just from an historical standpoint, schools have always been a place where students can get this large array of knowledge from one generation to the next, and I think this still applies for Kentucky schools now.

GUNNAR: I think the purpose of Kentucky schools right now is to funnel. I think that people get funneled very quickly, starting in elementary school. Either they’re on a college track or they’re going to be in a career for the rest of their life. And I feel that schools do that very quickly, and that is just the ultimate purpose I think, especially considering the way the classes are divided and the demographics that you see within certain classes. Those people have been put in those same classes for all twelve years, and that’s just how our system is built right now.

MICHAEL: The purpose of Kentucky schools is setting students up for when they get out of school, so they can succeed in the world. But it’s also to keep kids busy when they’re little.

SYDNEY: I really agree with the funneling thing. I feel like, sorry if this is negative, but I feel like there’s this notion that like, I don’t know. The classic thing you think of when you think of schools is that you go to learn. There’s all these opportunities-whatever. But I agree. I feel like from a young age, there is a division, and you are quickly put into different places. I’ve seen it around me. I’ve heard friends talk about it. There’s like segregation in classes and in schools all the time. I think it’s not always the goal to teach, but to sort. 

AIDEN: I think that school’s purpose is to give the necessary life skills and job practices and just everything necessary for someone to survive in today’s society. I think that’s what schools should provide to their students as they graduate from high school and do whatever they want to do for the rest of their lives. But I feel like now we have strayed away from that goal. It feels as though there’s not so much a focus on what comes after school so much as what to do with the students while they’re still in school. I feel like now, it’s more a question of, “What do we do with you to keep you busy?”

GUNNAR: This is going off what Raima said a little bit. I think that education just generally gets framed as you’re on a track or it’s general. I think that the ideal structure would be a good mixture. I feel like everyone should have a good, general education that includes STEM and the humanities and the arts, and you have a good general knowledge of everything. But I also think that students should be given the autonomy to choose their own direction a lot sooner than they do. A lot of times, you aren’t given that choice in public school, like you have to take classes in each subject in each field every single year. Changing that would change the ideal that school should be for preparation for life rather than for a specific type of life, if that makes sense.

RAIMA: I also think for the purpose of Kentucky schools, ideally, I wish they would prepare students for the real world more. Just because, yes, you do get education which is helpful if you’re going on a college pathway but, I want more of the real life, like having requirements like personal finance and things like that because a lot of these students aren’t going straight to college and they’re going to have to navigate this all on their own.

Also, I was thinking that the purpose of Kentucky schools is for students to enjoy education. If everyone pursued something that they wanted to, regardless of the salary, we would have a lot more successful people and more contributions to society.

So I feel like the purpose of Kentucky schools should be to enhance what students already are naturally interested in.

MICHAEL: Surely this isn’t just my school, but I feel my school focuses too much on students’ grades and the test scores, but not how much they’re actually learning. The materials they give students, I don’t feel like we learn enough but they only care about the grade on our test and not what we are actually learning.

SYDNEY: I feel like grades in my school are stressed too much and they give you too much busywork and things that don’t have meaning. They’re just giving it to you to give it to you. I have a self-paced learning class. The whole point of it is to work for everyone. It’s like individualizing the course to fit each person’s pace and like figuring out how they learn. I think something that allows that to happen is raising teachers’ salaries because something as intricate as that–to make sure students are getting the true education they need–needs to be above $35,000 which is a rough estimate. I haven’t been super updated on that, but I know teachers’ salaries are low. I think what education should be is self paced and catering to each individual student. I think that’s very important because I think that there’s this notion that if they aren’t thriving in this certain kind of way of teaching that teachers have that they’re not smart or they’re not paying attention. I think that’s a big issue.

AIDAN: What I’m hearing is that there’s two facets to the purpose of school that are undercurrents of what students want from their education. One is to prepare them for a job where you get that liberal arts education but you are able to specialize quicker than we are now instead of at college. And the second one is learning these life skills. This is all at one’s own pace. 

RAIMA: I feel like we’re all in agreement of the purpose of Kentucky schools. My only concern is the execution behind it because I’m very fortunate. I go to a magnet school. It has more of the personalized education experience. But for the majority of high schoolers in Kentucky, they don’t have magnet schools where they can focus in one specific area and take these courses. They’re usually really limited. If they wanted to take an anatomy class for example, not all schools offer it. So I think that’s a really important point just because yes, we may agree on the purpose, but without enough resources, the goal is not being accomplished.

MINHAL: In terms of your experience, how well do you think your school serves you and your peers?

MICHAEL: My school, they have a school voice team that if students feel like they’re not getting what they need to be getting, they have a voice to speak of it. There’s been times where the admin has requested the school to change something because a student has requested it. So I feel like my school listens to students’ voices very well. Especially in my district, a lot of schools listen to student voice.

AIDAN: I think that the problem is there is too much on the staff’s plate. Taking care of students’ requests and clubs and everything takes a lot of dedication. Some of these things can really be dedicated positions, and I think this ties back to funding. I feel like there’s not enough staff to satisfy every student’s needs. And there are 30 to 32 students for most of the classes that I’m in. So you just have to wonder if there’s a better allocation of human resources that we could be doing.

GUNNAR: My main drive in life is creativity and making art and things like that, so it’s a lot harder for me to say yes, my school has fulfilled my needs so I can pursue that. I’ve been able to take visual arts every year of high school which is amazing, but I wouldn’t say I’ve actually learned in those classes. It’s more like time allotted to do the thing that I’ve taught myself. It’s actually a debatable thing. Can you really teach someone how to make art? But a creative writing class is also offered at my school which is super awesome, but there’s only one form of it There’s just that one class. It’s hard to get past the idea that it’s like this because creativity won’t make you much money in the future. If you’re in the STEM field or if you’re really into Chemistry or Biology, you can continue to take courses all of high school and go to all these different teachers because that is what people value. 

SYDNEY: I personally have accommodations for attention issues. There’s some teachers who are super understanding about it, who understand I need extra test time. And there’s some teachers who are like, “You’re missing too much class.” But generally, it’s difficult explaining accommodations to people. But I do have to take a step back and appreciate it because if this were like the ‘80s or ‘90s, I would have to just be quiet and suffer. Generally in all schools and mine as well, there’s evolution in how they’re treating students, and that makes me really happy to see, even though there are some hiccups.

MINHAL: What do you wish Kentucky schools in general or your school in particular would do better?

RAIMA: For my school and for Kentucky schools in general, we need to take mental health needs more seriously. I know recently mental health days became a thing, which is a very good thing for Kentucky schools. But I feel like a lot of teachers don’t understand that. And also, counselors need to meet their needs because I know personally from a lot of my friends, they do those little mental health checks, when they have to do the suicide preventions and things, and there’s usually a box that asks if you maybe want to check with a counselor, they’ll check that box and a counselor never reaches out to them.

AIDEN: Guidance is a huge thing in schools and they could do so much better. Starting from middle school, we’ve had an ILP which stands for Individual Learning Plan, but we’re mandated to fill this form out indicating we’ve researched possible careers. We do this, but it feels so detached from everyday school life and no one really goes through it with us, so it ties back to what the whole purpose of school should be.

It should be to help us prepare for what comes after school, but at least for me, they aren’t doing this almost at all, not nearly to the extent that they could be. We don’t know exactly what we want to do with the rest of our lives. We require guidance.

MICHAEL: I feel like my school could do better in school safety. My school hasn’t had a fire drill at all this year. I remember when I was younger, we would do it once a month. We’re in the third month of school and we’ve not had a single drill yet. If something happens, if someone is armed comes into the building, we don’t know where to go. My school was built with glass so, I just thought I should point it out.

SYDNEY: I have something similar to that. It’s like that but also the opposite. We have issues like the few ruining it for the many. People go and smoke weed and vape in the bathrooms and stuff and then the teachers try and crack down by saying no bathroom breaks. That’s the only way people do it. They don’t skip class to go to the bathroom. They keep a majority of the bathrooms locked sometimes so if you have to go in between class, it’s really hard to find a bathroom! I have periods where no one’s allowed to leave the class to use the bathroom. Maybe that seems minor but there are more reasons to go to the bathroom than just what you usually think of when you go to the bathroom. Mental health, for example, [bathrooms are where you can go] if you need to take a break to somewhere that’s quieter. 

NORAH: What do you think Kentucky schools in general or your own school in particular are doing particularly well these days?

AIDEN: I think our school is pretty on top of it in terms of student freedoms. As long as you meet the requirements, any student is able to create a club that doesn’t already exist for other students. And there’s a lot to do with student freedoms in our school. They’re pretty lax on regulations, and that includes the dress codes. I feel like every system has its flaws, but at least students should have some control over their school experience and what clubs they join and what types of experience they want to have. If you don’t have that autonomy then school can feel very mundane and can get very monotonous.

MICHAEL: I go to an arts school. They’re very different from most schools about dress code and the classes you take. They give us a lot of freedom around what we’re allowed to take and what we’re allowed to talk about in school.

GUNNAR: My school does a good job of leaving to teachers things that could be top down from administrators and superintendents. There are things that are happening in our classrooms that make me very happy, conversations like you were talking about, Michael, that may have been barred in the past. But if your teacher is someone who’s able to facilitate those conversations, and they’re able to have them, I feel like in my school, that happens a lot of the time. That’s super great and it makes me really happy. There’s freedom with clubs and things like that and for ways students can gather which is super awesome. So yeah, that’s something I really enjoy about school right now.


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