Palliser students talk issues with Minister Eggen

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Students from across the province pose with Education Minister David Eggen.

Two Palliser high school students knew they’d be representing their peers at an event attended by the Minister of Education. They didn’t know they’d be selected by their peers to present directly to him.

Rachel Schuck, a Grade 11 student at Heritage Christian Academy in Calgary, and Grace Gunderson, a Grade 10 student at Picture Butte High School, attended the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta spring conference. They led two of three topic-specific presentations to Minister David Eggen June 3.

“We knew we would get to meet him, but we didn’t expect to personally speak with him,” says Gunderson. “It’s amazing to get to go to something like that. . . The feeling is so stellar.”

In advance of the conference, PSBAA invited students across Alberta to complete an online survey. An ad hoc committee of PSBAA members and students, including Palliser Trustee Don Zech, reviewed the survey data and identified the three top topics to emerge from students: bullying; relevancy of courses and curriculum; and whether the values outlined in Inspiring Education could be made relevant again.

The association of public boards, including Palliser Regional Schools, has made student voice a priority for the past few years. Both Schuck and Gunderson were among four Palliser students to attend a PSBAA session last fall, focused on building conflict resolution skills.

Sharing personal and powerful stories

This event, both teens say, was quite different in format, formality and outcome. This time, about 30 students from around the province worked through table exercises, discussing the three topics.

The students then chose three representatives to lead presentations to the minister on each theme.

For Gunderson, bullying was the topic she felt most strongly about. She mustered the courage to share her own deeply personal and painful story of bullying she’s experienced. Her teammates, two middle school students, then shared their own stories.

“It was definitely very difficult to share,” she says. “I didn’t want to. I needed to.”

Gunderson says the audience reacted with gasps to the stories they heard, and she hopes the minister will be moved to action having heard these first-hand accounts.

“It’s not that you can ever eliminate bullying,” she says. “You can’t get away from it, but with the right help. . .”

She says sometimes the person behind the gossip or hurtful acts doesn’t realize how much harm they are doing. If they did, they might stop.

Students do Palliser proud

Palliser Trustee Zech said it was clear from the minister’s comments to PSBAA delegates that he was moved emotionally by what he heard from the students.

“Our kids really did us proud,” he says.

Schuck was tasked with presenting on the topic of Inspiring Education, a long-term vision for education adopted in 2009 by a previous government. The students’ discussion might have started with that plan in mind, but it broadened to brainstorming about what inspires education.

Schuck said she supported what she learned about Inspiring Education and its commitment to ensuring students are ethical, entrepreneurial and engaged citizens.

She was heartened to hear the minister explain Alberta Education has identified a new set of values for students, including stewardship. She hopes students will be made more aware of these values to determine for themselves whether schools are living up to that vision.

“We must have students who have a willingness to be pioneers and leaders of their generation,” Schuck said in her presentation.

Students need to be able “to step out in confidence and lead the way for everyone else.”

Speaking directly to the minister on behalf of students across Alberta required that kind of confidence, and Schuck says she was “pretty nervous.”

All students need access to programs and opportunities

All three topics identified from the student survey resonated with Schuck.

“I’m from HCA, a small high school,” she says. “We don’t have AP (Advanced Placement) or IB (International Baccalaureate) or the variety of courses other schools have. . . Grace wants to be a meteorologist. I want to be a doctor. Another student wants to be an engineer. Another doesn’t know what he wants to do. Each of us needs to be able to access courses relevant to our needs.”

Both Gunderson and Schuck expressed gratitude to the PSBAA for its Student Voice Program.

“I felt heard in a meaningful way and an extremely powerful way,” Gunderson says.

As a thank you, the students presented PSBAA President Arlene Hrynyk and Executive Director Mary Lynne Campbell “Blue Team” T-shirts, worn by Palliser’s student leaders at the division’s annual student-led conference. Both Gunderson and Schuck are “Blue Team” members, leading presentations for peers and helping to plan the division event.

Schuck says she’s grateful for Palliser’s leadership programs, through which she’s developed friendships across the division. She says she and Gunderson have developed a close friendship, and only met because of the division’s leadership program.

“Because of things like the Blue Team, leadership in my school and conferences like this, I’ve discovered a passion for public speaking and sharing my ideas,” Schuck says.

For more information on Alberta Education’s student values, download the PDF called “The Guiding Framework for the Design and Development of Kindergarten to Grade 12 Provincial Curriculum (Programs of Study).”