Bringing Youth to the Table in Akron

February 11, 2020 by On the Table NLN

A Stanford University study released last fall analyzed 11,000 youth letters to the President from 2016, and the findings suggest that students are ready and willing to become more civically engaged. However, for many communities, this is happening through youth participation in On the Table conversations. Through specific materials and prompts geared toward students, a youth survey, the creation of student advisory boards and more, the On the Table model has been adapted in various ways to engage and empower youth in communities across the country. 

Akron Public Schools (APS) – who hosted conversations in 2018 and 2019 as part of On the Table Akron, led by the Akron Community Foundation in Ohio – has really taken the model and made it their own by incorporating On the Table as part of its Freshman Seminar at its eight high schools across the city. This “focus class” is required for all freshman to help ensure that they’re successful in the classroom and beyond. In addition to the Freshman Seminar discussions, APS also participates in a citywide youth conversation that brings together students from across the region together in conversation.

“We believe strongly in the preparing our students for college and career, and On the Table conversations really fit in nicely to the work we’re doing in Freshman Seminar classes,” said Adam Motter, Akron Public Schools. “Beyond the normal coursework, we want our students to know how to become responsible citizens and how to communicate with others – using civil discourse to talk about challenges and be part of solutions.”

More than 2,000 APS students have taken part in these conversations to date.

APS used the materials developed by the Akron Community Foundation as a blueprint for a training session to prepare their teachers to serve as hosts, as well as a presentation tool to help kick-off the classroom conversations. While teachers, Central Office administrators and volunteers from the community were tapped to help facilitate the conversations in classrooms, students were given key roles in an effort to help them “own” the conversations. The first task in any conversation was to appoint a discussion leader and notetaker.

“The success of On the Table is due in large part to our Freshman Seminar teachers and social studies teachers,” said Motter. “Their commitment is amazing, and we are so impressed by the time they take to work with students, create a safe space for these conversations to take place, and help students understand the significance of the issues being discussed.”

All Akron youth who participated in On the Table – including APS students – were given the opportunity to complete a post-conversation survey. The 2019 survey results showed that youth have clear priorities for issues they would like their community to address and they express interest in getting involved by volunteering. Drug use and addiction ranked as the top issue in the survey; racism and discrimination, bullying, and violence and gangs emerged as second-tier issue priorities.

As the program continues to evolve, APS leaders are continuing to look for ways to provide students with opportunities to identify possible solutions and play a part in implementing them to drive change in communities.

“When we were first approached about participating in On the Table, as educators, we immediately saw value in these conversations. But when you’re with the kids, actually having these discussions, it is truly powerful,” said Motter. “We ask the kids for their opinions, and even when they struggle to find the words for what’s important, they say ‘I’m just glad I had the chance to talk about this with someone.’”

The Akron On the Table youth guide and APS’ teacher training and student presentation decks are available in the National Learning Network’s documents section. Log in to access these and materials from other communities. 


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