- Smith Middle School
Social Justice Action: Equity and Empathy Ambassadors
A Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools bus pulled up to the Sheraton Hotel on Wednesday morning, October 26 – not a common sight at that exact location, but once the bus stopped, more than 20 high school students filed off and found their way to the main ballroom, to join other students who had arrived by car. The 39 Equity and Empathy Ambassadors from all four CHCCS high schools gathered to spend most of the day together, discussing the Strategic Plan 2027, grading policies and homework experiences from their respective schools. In their collaboration, they embodied two Core Values from the CHCCS Strategic Plan – Social Justice Action and Collective Efficacy!
During the opening session at the Sheraton, Superintendent Nyah Hamlett laughed and smiled as she chided a few of the yawning students, saying, “It’s past 9:30 – how are y’all still asleep? I’m usually in my third meeting by now!” Her tone with the Ambassadors is often light, but always respectful and empowering. Hamlett has often said that she loves nothing more than spending time in conversation with CHCCS young people – her pleasure and admiration are clearly evident.
First, a bit of background: The program hosted its inaugural meeting in February 2022 under the name Superintendent’s Equity Ambassadors. Students applied to be Ambassadors and were then selected to serve with a goal of strengthening district-level equity and engagement, building connections across the high schools and amplifying student voice and empowerment on a range of issues. This year, the word “Empathy” was added to the Ambassadors’ title, and Hamlett explained that she expects everyone to be honed into all students’ potential and to prioritize that essential need to connect with each other.
Tiffany Boston, CHCCS equity specialist for student leadership and engagement, was one of the coordinators of last week’s meeting. “Not only do [the ambassadors] advocate for student voices at their respective schools, they are ambassadors for collectively leading the work of equitable change for students throughout the district,” Boston said. “There are issues at their schools that they want to address, but they have also identified overlapping concerns and action steps. They are observant, inquisitive, and are outstanding change agents ready to transform CHCCS equitable outcomes for academic, social, and emotional needs.”
One of the first activities involved the students browsing through their copies of the CHCCS Strategic Plan. Hamlett reminded the students of their collaboration last year to help develop the section, “Portrait of a Graduate,” and some students expressed pride and satisfaction as they realized their brainstorming from months ago had taken shape in such an integral part. Later, in reviewing the Plan’s Core Values, Hamlett highlighted Social Justice Action as the most important as relates to their work together. “It is why this group exists,” Hamlett said. “We believe in centering equity in all our actions.” She noted that an awareness of present and past injustices requires an emphasis on Speaking Up. “We want to help students hold their administrators accountable, and when our Board of Education asks, ‘What do students say,’ I can bring your voices to share.”
CHS student, Nevaeh’ Hodge said, “The Equity and Empathy Ambassador program has positively changed my life, and the school system has improved greatly since we have started meeting. Our meetings are a safe space for students to share their thoughts around different policies and share the injustices they see in their school in a collaborative way, and get feedback and solutions to solve these issues. The program is helping to improve the school system by hearing the root of the problems from the people experiencing them and allowing students to come up with ways to improve their school experience. I believe the key to changing the schools for the better is getting students to make decisions about the things that impact them and this is exactly what this program is doing."
Yu-Hsiang Hung, a student at CHHS, said, “Being an ambassador for the program allows me to help build a more inclusive community within the district through meaningful discussions with my peers from other high schools, all while representing my own. The policy discussion we had on Wednesday built off of the efforts we had put in the year prior. It was an unreal experience seeing the ideas we shared last year written into the official pamphlet.”
Ellie Zerden, a student at ECHHS, said, “Overall, my experience as an Equity and Empathy Ambassador has been really amazing! It has allowed me to grow and learn from different perspectives from students across the district, and has helped me use my voice to speak out and empower change within our community.”
Joining Hamlett and Boston as facilitators and conveners of the session were staff from the Office of Equity and Engagement: Lorie Clark, coordinator of student leadership and engagement, Trilce Marquez, coordinator of instructional equity and leadership, and Liz Vail, equity specialist for instructional equity, among others. Boston said of the session last week, “I was inspired by the authenticity of the students to confidently speak about a variety of topics.”
Among the varied topics were CHCCS grading policies, as well as homework expectations.
Zerden (an ECHHS student) added, “Many of the high school students I discussed with are under large amounts of stress due to the burdensome amount of homework required by many teachers. While homework can be very useful to provide better understanding to classroom material, it should not be preventing students from being able to do things they enjoy such as family time and activities because of their large amount of work. We also discussed homework being graded on completion rather than accuracy considering some students have resources such as tutors and parents to help them with their homework while others do not have this privilege. Some students also have jobs outside of school or have to take care of family members which doesn’t leave much time for homework. We hope teachers start to consider the pressure that many students are under and reconsider before assigning unnecessary tasks or “busy work” for students to complete at home.”
The students stayed busy throughout their session, filling response sheets, posters and conducting small group debates, before loading back onto the bus, into cars and returning to their high schools, jobs and homes.
CHS student Anna Bober said, “I love being a part of a group that allows me to form connections with peers and administrators across the district. Forming these connections made me realize how lucky I am to be in a district that empowers students to be who they are in order to thrive.”
Thank you, Equity and Empathy Ambassadors, for caring so deeply about the wellbeing and success of your community – and for your ongoing contributions to all of our students and staff!