Throwback

Dress up days are almost always a crapshoot. For every successful Pyjama Day is a clunker that leaves students either puzzled or uninspired. At most middle and high schools a few standards hold sway (usually with alliteration) so seeing “Throwback Thursday” on the Spirit Week calendar doesn’t particularly raise anyone’s hopes. But students have the fundamental ability to surprise us, often in creative and clever ways, and last Thursday at ACMA was an example of what makes me hopeful about the future.

Populating the halls on ACMA’s Throwback Thursday were the almost to be expected bell bottoms, poodle skirts, and leg warmers, all done with the eye of an artist, and…

For anyone who thinks that “kids today” have had their creativity zapped by technology, their spirits broken by school, or their innovation stifled by a world of questionable priorities, I offer ACMA’s Throwback Thursday as exhibit A that the kids are more than all right. 

On Thursday ACMA students took the concept of “Throwback” and made it their own.

Rosie the Riveter walked passed me holding hands with a fantastically robed Jedi master, the 1940s meeting “a long, long time ago.” Sharks and Jets shared the hallway with Robin Hood; a student wearing a bowler hat and pinstripe suit high-fived two Jazzercise instructors. At lunchtime I saw an Egyptian pharaoh.

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Now in and of itself this may not sound crazily important, and I suppose in the greater scheme of things it isn’t, but this combination of youthful exuberance and wild creativity, made manifest by students who constructed their own costumes and were willing to spend a school day as 19th century banker or Laura Ingalls Wilder reminded me that I have the good fortune to be surrounded by students who are innovative, thoughtful, and willing to put aside inhibition and play.

These weren’t simply costumes plucked off the wall at the Halloween store; the spikes on my punk rocker’s wrist and neck would have passed muster in 1983, the tinted glasses and tie-dye shirt one student wore looked like they’d been around since 1969, and the Beavis and Butthead t-shirt one student sported felt authentic. Even these more conventional approaches to Throwback Thursday had been put together thoughtfully, an approach that I see many students take to most of the subjects they care about.

IMG_1840For the more adventurous or theatrical, that forethought exploded into the reality of flappers and fedoras for Throwback Thursday. 

Once again, the takeaway wasn’t just that creative kids like dressing up in costumes (though they do), but that when they want to, today’s youth has the potential to innovate, to take an established prompt and make it their own. This is as true for something as little as a dress up day as it is something big like climate change, period poverty, or school safety.

Unfettered by the many limitations those of us over thirty put on ourselves and the cultural expectations dictated by our greater society, students know that the world is theirs for the changing. Many of this generation aren’t going to do what we expect them to do, or at least not in the way we expect them to do it. Instead, like that Jedi and Rosie the Riveter, or pharaoh, or punk rocker, they will build on the history the know, express the passion they feel, and create the reality they want to see.

Maybe I’m sentimental, it’s an accusation I’ll own up to, and maybe today was just a great dress up day during Fall Spirit Week, but I choose to recognize it as more. My older eyes saw in my students an expression of creativity that will lead to a better world, a sense of hope wrapped in an expression of joy, a bright future dressed in old clothes.

“You can just talk” 

The senior, a gifted musician, talented artist, and leader of our National Honor Society, slowly raised his hand. He looked to the moderator and waited. She was listening to another girl and after a moment or two made eye contact with the patient senior. The moderator smiled. “You can just talk,” she said, welcoming, kind, the perfect leader of a student gathering. He put his hand down, smiled back, and launched into a big idea about how high school students could help support middle schoolers on our 6th-12th grade campus.

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It was lunchtime on a Friday and the first meeting of our ACMA Student Forum.

The idea was simple: two amazing students moderated a discussion, projecting a shared document on the wall and asking students what topics they wanted to talk about. While one typed, everyone gathered was invited to pitch in ideas about what was working at our school, what wasn’t working, and what they thought might help make ACMA better.

Students, any students, not just students elected to student government or as Ohana reps, could say whatever they thought. All voices were equal, whether it was a plucky 6th grader or a veteran like that twelfth grade fellow who raised his hand.

IMG_1731The couple of dozen students listened to each other, added their ideas to the mix, and asked questions. I was there to listen and answer any questions that the principal might, but the forum wasn’t mine, it belonged to the students.

Topics ranged beautifully from a question about how much time the seniors would have to present their Capstone projects in March (they’d like as much time as they could have to share their art) to how often we might make announcements (the hope was once a week over the PA, and maybe finding some other ways to spread the word about important events).

Students talked about how to support clubs (a club fair at lunch was one idea) and what we might do to invite more art into our lunches (music, visual art displays, and excerpts from productions all rose from the diverse voices in the room). Lots of students nodded as they enjoyed pizza together. 

While one moderator typed furiously to capture the ideas (her notes will be shared with the staff next week), the other moderator invited comments from the group, prompting, praising, and promoting a lively discussion.

Then, in what struck me as a delightful surprise, the discussion turned to academics. 

“We’re seen as an art school,” a senior said, “and we should be, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t do math and science and the academic subjects too.”

“We’re proud of being artists,” another student added, “and being different, but sometimes I think the younger kids don’t understand how seriously we take our studies.”

IMG_1737“Especially the sixth graders.”

“They see us being goofy in the hallways,” said another, “but not when we’re crying over an essay at two in the morning.”

“How can we help that?” a junior asked.

“We could talk to them in their Ohanas,” someone suggested. “Like right after midterms, when they’re getting their grades.”

“And we could help them,” another said. She looked around at the group. “Could we offer to tutor younger kids during Access?”

For any non-ACMA readers, “Access” is a 40 minute long period once a week when students can sign up to go to visit any teacher they’d like for extra help, to make up a test, or work on a project. Sometimes teachers get swamped, and the students at our forum noted that many of them had already taken and passed classes the underclassmen and middle schoolers were in now; they’d be willing to form study groups that med during that time.

Some of the students started talking logistics, some brainstormed the classes kids would need the most help in. One let her thinking include the topics of balance and wellness, and how students might help one another. Another how soon they could go to Ohanas to speak to students about taking academics seriously. Everyone was amazing.

IMG_1734…and I’d be fibbing if I said that I expected today’s forum to jump from art and communication to academics, but then it did.

These awesome students, given the opportunity to talk about anything they wanted, chose to talk about how they could help.

At ACMA that shouldn’t be surprising. 

Because as proud as we are to be a school of artists, free thinkers, and open minded humans, we’re also a school filled with students who care, students who want to help, and students who take their studies seriously  (even if they don’t always take themselves seriously, a healthy trait).

That one student said: “you need to know algebra even if you’re going to a conservatory” showed a glimpse of that ACMA magic. This is a place where the unexpected should be expected, where kindness finds its way into our best conversations, and where a gathering of artistic souls can go anywhere. 

“You can just talk,” our moderator told her peers. Today they did.

 

We’ll have our next ACMA Student Forum in the student study area in the B100 hall at both lunches on November 20th. 

“ACMA isn’t a building.”

What elevated the ceremony into something to be remembered were the powerful and heartfelt words of the three ACMA students who spoke at the groundbreaking for ACMA’s new campus, the many students and staff in attendance, and the smiles and laughter when the kids (all of them who wanted to) got to pose in front of the heavy machinery holding ceremonial shovels. 

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In the fall of 2021 Arts & Communication Magnet Academy will open our new building on the original Center Street location where we have been making art and making memories since the school was born. The transformation will be profound, the mid century elementary school building that warmed our hearts with nostalgia, but whose antiquated radiators could no longer reliably warm our classrooms, replaced by a modern building designed to be an art school.

At the groundbreaking on Saturday, Heidi Chuc-Garcia, a senior, spoke first, providing her thoughts in verse:

I’m from a hallway with murals on the walls.
I’m from classroom that reflects teachers personalities.
I’m from having lunch in the hallways, classrooms, portables, and outside.
I’m from a strange place,
A hallway with dim lights and slightly colored water
Where some classrooms were too hot and some were too cold.
I’m a burrito smelling class in Walker’s room after lunch
To the broken windows in Kraxy’s, Alby’s, Gottshall’s, and Lupe’s rooms
And being bushed and bumped by seniors in sixth grade
And falling and tripping over rolling backpacks.
And I’m from music blasting from some of the school speakers
From 7:25 to 7:30
And watching four teachers push their carts up and down hills
And through the hallway.
This is a place where artists were pushed and inspired.
I was always mesmerized by the art around me.
I’m from a place where teachers have a passion for what they teach
And is shows, it really does.
I’m from supporting staff and teachers who believe in me.

The truth is, that while this location represents those memories,
It’s not about the building, and never has been.
You see, I’m still making these memories
With my friends and teachers at the new building
Because ACMA is its people
Its students and teachers and staff.
This place only encapsulates some of those memories
It renders them, and that’s okay
Because we carry them.
It’s been a long journey, and today’s an important day
Because it’s the commencement of a new chapter
And although I won’t be here when it’s finished
I can’t describe how excited I am for the returning students.

So I guess it shouldn’t be ‘I’m from this place…”
Or ‘I’m from those memories and those experiences…’
It should me more:
‘I am ACMA!’
‘You are ACMA!’
‘We are ACMA!’

So we better take care of ACMA
At our current building and its future home,
Filling it with love, admiration, and the respect it deserves.”

Better perspective, and from a student who will herself never take a class in the new building, cannot be imagined.

Lauren Camou spoke next. The only student of the three who will graduate from the new campus, she looked forward to the changes to come. She said:

I have been here since sixth grade and will be the second class to graduate in the new building. ACMA has been a very welcoming and safe environment for me and I couldn’t be happier to be here for the seven years I get. I love all of the staff and all the students I see everyday. 

Where we are standing now, was our school. This building that is no longer here was a big part of us. The one hallway that kept us all so close, united us. The Tom Marsh, the Batcave, the different class murals, and even the hidden parts of the building that most students never see kept our history in the walls of this building quite literally. 

And although we were able to take the class murals with us, the building is gone. But we’re still the same. We still help one another and spread kindness everywhere we can, just in a bigger and temporary building. In two years, we’ll be here again, in our new space. 

We’ll still be ACMA, of course, and we’ll still support each other, because that’s just who we are, and that won’t change.”

Such wisdom in youth is the reason I’m so optimistic about the future of our school and our world.

Annika McNair finished the set, beginning her speech with a well chosen quotation from Tolkien.

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all a patter and a pitter.” That’s a quote about Bilbo from JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I share this quote because it largely describes ACMA students on their approach to the temporary school.

We’re still a little heartbroken from leaving the old one. We’ll never be able to see the same halls, or the trees outside the windows of class, but I think in the last week or two we’ve had a little bit of a redeeming realization. ACMA isn’t a building; it’s a home we carry with us, and maybe it’s the people we meet or the passion of arts that we share, but we’ve created a sense of family that extends beyond the sentimentality of a building.

Even so, when we gathered to watch the live feed of the demolition it wasn’t hard to miss the loss we all felt. We were in a place that allowed us to love and so we learned to love the place. Today we are gathered to celebrate what is going to be the new ACMA building. When it is finished and we move again, trotting along like little Bilbo, I’ve no doubt the new building will provide the same space to keep our home.”

The rest of us adults who spoke did our best to commemorate this momentous occasion. We’ve all been on the planet long enough to know that days like this are rarer than we’d like, and that having something so grand to look forward to is a treasure beyond measure. Some of us also know how important this is for ACMA; a groundbreaking on a building like this could scarcely be imagined in the early years of Arts & Communication, and I’ll suggest that a few of the tears in the audience were in honor of the journey our little art school has taken in the past (almost) thirty years.

But while we adults were earnest and articulate, I know that what people will remember from the day is the words of the kids. As they should.

Because, as I mentioned in my brief remarks, we are not building this school for any of the adults at the podium. ACMA is for the kids, the dreamers, the artists, the future.

everyone

If you missed Saturday’s soiree, you can find a video of it here!

Emperors and New Clothes

When I was a youngster, just three or four, I met Governor Tom McCall. Oregonians know McCall as a legendary state political figure responsible for the bottle bill, major environmental legislature, and ensuring the public ownership of Oregon beaches. When I met him, I called him “Big Tom.” I don’t know the logistics of that meeting, but have a vague memory of waiting in the outer office before being ushered into the governor’s office to present him with a drawing I’d made. What I do remember is that during my wait I’d accidentally ripped the paper and when I got to Big Tom I told him that he could fix the rip with a little scotch tape.

photo 4Chutzpah. 

Or maybe it was just the naive perspective of a kid. I figured he’d want to keep the drawing, of course, and knew I was the young fellow who could offer him advice on how to curate this art for his collection. He smiled, nodded, and probably patted me on the head. I left happy.

I happened on a photograph of that meeting this summer and it made me think of the wonderful ability kids have of cutting through bureaucracy and the trappings of office to speak honestly about what’s on their mind. Often it’s the youngest who can offer advice without fear to the authority figures we learn, over time, to defer to. What a marvelous thing.

As a principal I see this deference sometimes, and truth be told it doesn’t make me a better leader. What does help me serve my school community well is when those around me are honest and straightforward and are willing to tell me the truth.

I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by strong voices in my main office and within the ranks of my staff. Not all, but more than a few of my teachers seem to feel comfortable approaching me with concerns in time that we can do something about them. Those closest to me are kind, but clear, when the offer me advice about how one of my wilder schemes is not a good idea.

“Bjorn, the whole school can’t really tie-dye t-shirts in a way that doesn’t make a colossal mess and cause headaches for everyone.” That sort of thing.

Students are awesome about this too, and some of my favorite memories of student voice have happened when individuals or groups of kids come to my office to talk about what’s on their mind. It’s not always that I can fix what’s bothering them, but I can listen and make efforts to move toward a better situation.

The fearlessness of these students reminds me of that little boy and Big Tom. They are sure that they have an answer to the question at hand, and for that certainty I applaud them, even if the adult reality makes those answers hard to bring about.

In the end, it’s these challenging ideas and the change they can prompt that help to make our school better. Whether it’s the day to day procedures that impact students every day or the broader policies and practices that we can improve to make the student experience better, inviting student voice is an important part of being a school leader. I need to know when the emperor has no clothes, preferably before I walk out in front of the parade.

As a principal I can’t fix everything as quickly as I wish I could, but by listening to others sometimes I can. It just takes paying attention …and a little scotch tape.

Artisan Dances

This post is in praise of the homespun, the handcrafted, the artisan. I’ve been places where high school dances are elaborate affairs, acres of lights, fog machines (that somehow always set off the fire alarm), and a sense of spectacle that rivals a Hollywood production. I once chaperoned a prom in an affluent Southern California community held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. They brought in a ferris wheel.

DVDWb6sUQAMHBhRThere is certainly something memorable about a spectacle, it’s in the name I suppose, but to tell the truth the best school dances I’ve ever seen have been less about fireworks and more about feeling. These events, the really good ones, aren’t store bought or rented by the hour. They’re built by hand, crafted with creativity, and imagined with an eye to the unexpected.

This fall, one manifestation of the unexpected came in the form of pudding, forty pounds of it.

Being at ACMA means being ready for anything. The unexpected happens so often it can be depended on: a piano in the cafeteria, a visiting llama, a teacher in a kilt? Yep, ACMA. Art everywhere in the hallways, impromptu violin concerts at lunch, and no mascot? ACMA. Silly yearbook photos, the principal in a cannibal movie, kindness as part of the middle school science curriculum? That’s ACMA too.

So on an October morning when my secretary leaned into my office and said: “I’ll be right back. I need to go pick up forty pounds of pudding” I knew enough to simply nod and answer “Great!”

Just outside my door piles of boxes had been accumulating for a couple of weeks: glow sticks, neon paper, and paint splattered posters. This was going to be an ‘80s themed fall dance, and it was going to be, I was assured, totally awesome.

IMG_9044By the end of the week we’d have boxes of apples, bags of popcorn, and enough caramel to satisfy the hundreds of students who would fill our Quonset Hut, courtyard, and hallways that Friday night. Throughout the week I saw rolls of colored paper turn into posters of dancers, checkerboard designs (that I was told would look fantastic underneath the black lights), and a giant boom box.

Every afternoon after the last bell rang, a core of Dance Committee students and a panoply of others spent day after day in the hallways painting, cutting, and preparing for the dance. To the sounds of Duran Duran, Wham, and Madonna they laughed and worked together to come up with what they imagined the 1980s to be.

A week before they’d asked our staff for photos of themselves in the 1980s. The results, which looked like the casting call for a John Hughes movie, were put into a slideshow that ran on a loop on our indoor marquee on the day of the dance.

Decorations continued to emerge: the giant Rubik’s Cube, the banner announcing the GLOW HALLWAY, and the black lights (that the kids were so excited about that the custodian put them in the fixtures outside the library by the Wednesday before the dance).

On Thursday my cafeteria lead came into the office to purchase tickets to the dance for two students who were having some trouble affording them. So very ACMA.

The pudding arrived, in four pound pouches two to a box (for anyone curious how forty pounds of pudding arrives, as I was). I found out that the pudding was destined for dixie cups, to be covered with crumbled Oreos and planted with a gummy worm. I’m not sure how that fit into the ‘80s, but still… homemade fun.

IMG_9049Friday after school the hallways moon walked back in time. The decorations that had been piling up in the office found their proper places around campus, a fleet of tables appeared in the courtyard (to be manned by parent volunteers who would serve caramel apples, popcorn, and worm cups), and the DJ set up in the Quonset Hut.

But dancing at a dance is just one part of the experience at our little school. As those Men Without Hats remind us, “You can dance if you want to…” Some don’t. They’re still friends of mine, and at ACMA we have a quiet room set aside for board games and to serve as a haven for those of us who need an island of quiet on a night of reveling. It’s the Lionel Ritchie to the evening’s Quiet Riot, and at every dance our game room is a popular choice. Some only stay for a round or two of Apples to Apples; some hunker down over an evening of laughter and Jenga.

Then Friday night arrived, and with it students in ‘80s wear that would have made Cindi Lauper proud. Asymmetrical, neon, and bedazzled, the outfits took me back to my own high school years (when an ‘80s dance was simply called a dance). As with the decorations and planning for the dance itself, the students had brought creativity and their own interpretation to what they were wearing, and the results were fantastic.

IMG_9045And occasionally unexpected, like the student who arrived in armor and said: “‘80s dance? You mean 1380s, right?”

Walking around that night I was struck by the overwhelming quality of everything. The ‘80s outfits were put together with care, whimsy, and (it looked to someone who was there during the Reagan administration) historical research. The decorations were thoughtful, well done, and had been formed by the hands of scores of students.

And that was it: the students owned this dance.

As they had with last year’s May the Fourth extravaganza (with a stunning Darth Maul in full makeup) and the epic winter formal (complete with a life size cutout of one of our math teachers dressed as a gondolier), ACMA students had created something marvelous.

Plus, pudding.

First Things

The kids spoke first. Before we talked about mission or vision, before the new principal, me, did his best to introduce himself, and before we ticked through the “to do” list of the first week back, four intrepid students stood up in front of the staff, looked all of us in the eye, and reminded us what really mattered.

IMG_4070 (1)Truth be told, only three were able to be in the library that Monday morning, the first day back on campus for teachers still wearing shorts and summer tans. Four had met with me over the summer and we’d talked about what makes our school special, the anxiety and stress students face, and the messages they would share with the adults in their lives if given the opportunity.

They were messages of hope, honestly told, and stories about their own first days at ACMA when their anxiety was high and the biggest reassurances came from their teachers.

So on that first day back, as the staff settled in after a pancake breakfast, the first speakers of the morning were the kids. They were awesome.

As one student stood up and told the staff, “Some students face problems beyond being new to ACMA, though- difficult home lives, troubled interpersonal relationships, life changes like divorce or moving, or even something as simple as applying for colleges, and everything else that comes with that. For these students and all students, you’re something we can count on every single day we show up. This may be the most stability they’re getting at this point in their lives. And undoubtedly, many count on you for that whether they show it or not. Students are always listening. Not always when we want them to, but they are. Things that you say, even offhanded or trivial things can change a student’s entire perspective, for the better or the worse. And that’s a powerful thing, knowing that our relationships can change someone’s day, their year, their life.”

Another empathized with his teachers, explaining, “I’m actually also a teacher. I’m a gymnastics coach at the Oregon Gymnastics Academy. Now, I’m not trying to say that i’m on the same level as you guys, I mean, the most education that I have is sophomore year of high school. However, in other ways, our jobs are pretty similar. I grade them on their drills, and I make progress reports for them to take home. And according to them, I’m also in my 40s. But above all that, they see me as a role model. They reflect the energy that I put out there all the time. If I’m positive and I’m being a good cheerleader, they catch on, and they see that since I love what I do, they should love it too. And when you guys show that we should respect and trust the people around us, we begin to to do the same with our peers.”

A third told the teachers, “You change our lives, and not always with what subject you’re teaching but with how you support us. I want to thank you for the influence you’ve had on me, and I hope that you will continue to have a positive influence on each student who comes to school next week.”

The staff listened.

This was the reason we do what we do: students.

…and then they invited us outside to play.

The almost fifty adults followed our student leaders out to the quad where they circled us up and invited us to join in on a theater game called “Freeze!” As one student explained, this was a game that invited us to avoid the word “no” and concentrate on embracing the idea of “yes, and…” as we extended the impromptu scene.

IMG_4064Laughing together, we did our best to do just that, teachers tapping in to perform scenes from ACMA life and relishing the opportunity to have fun with each other.

When we finished, the students brought us back inside and reminded us that that feeling of nervousness that we felt before we jumped into the game, those butterflies in our stomach, were not unlike what so many of our students would be feeling the next week when they arrived for classes. We, the adults who would welcome them, could make a difference.

We got it. Yes, and…

I said that only three of the four student were able to come to our meeting, but that’s not quite the truth. At our last summer planning session the fourth, a young filmmaker, realized that she had to be out of town that morning, so she made a video we could play for teachers. Her earnestness and caring, projected on the screen in the library that morning, captured the essence of what is right about “kids today.”

Looking out from that screen and into our hearts, that fourth student spoke her truth.

Don’t underestimate your influence,” she told the teachers. “You have the power to potentially change a student’s life.”

I think that starting our school year together as a staff by listening to students helped to set the tone for the months ahead. Laughing and interacting with kids and colleagues reminded us that we are all in this together, a professional family working toward the same goal: supporting our students and each other.

San Dieguito’s Student Forum

Given the chance to talk and listen students become adults.

One of my very favorite parts of San Dieguito is our monthly student forum. Unfettered from adults or official ASB guidance, students at SDA gather together in the art studio, a space large enough to hold multitudes, to talk about the topics on their minds.

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Sometimes the ideas are big ones: How do we help integrate all grade levels for a more cohesive school? Other times the topics are profoundly practical: We need more toilet paper in the girls’ bathrooms! From time to time my role as principal puts me in the hot seat: We need more student parking. We do. Often the kindness of the students astounds me, as when a student addressing our visiting superintendent compared me to Beyoncé. Huh? …and thanks!

Mostly, the forum is an opportunity for students to have a voice in the life of their school.

IMG_6162Without shouting or having to mount a podium and fiddle with a microphone, every student, not just elected officials, has equal access to all her fellow students. The audience listens, really listens, students write down what is being said, and the audience responds respectfully. It is an exercise in democratic free speech that is inspirational.

Traditionally, two student moderators lead the forum, standing in front of a group well fed with pizzas provided by ASB. A blank document is projected on a screen at one end of the room, a place for notes, a list of topics suggested by the students, and announcements. It’s a document that will be shared with the staff as soon as the forum is over.

Not that staff isn’t there… Every forum all four of our administrators, many teachers, counselors, and classified staff join students at the forum to listen, answer questions, and hear about San Dieguito from a student point of view.

IMG_4364This point of view, or perhaps better said these points of view, are spoken, not shouted. Students are passionate about what they are saying, but the norms of the forum, built over years, are expectations of respect, kindness, and patience. Freshmen speak, seniors too, and students and staff listen to what they have to say.

The results can be immediate (more toilet paper), take a little longer (parking solutions), be subtle or transformative. Regardless of what comes out of a student forum, however, it is the existence of such a tradition that makes the biggest difference.

Any school is a better place when students are heard. Strong student newspapers are one way of sharing student perspectives, vibrant student governments are another, and here at San Dieguito it’s amazing to know that there is a place for every student to share her point of view. Our school is richer because if it!