By Robyn Lingo, Mikva’s Chief of Strategy & Impact

A recent article in EdWeek highlights some very concerning, and very consistent challenges, for our nation’s schools, teachers and students.  A youth mental health crisis, teacher shortages and burnout, and students still recovering from the effects of the COVID pandemic. 

These are big challenges.  

But like we see at Mikva Challenge every day, investing in youth civic engagement and youth voice is key to finding new solutions for improving our schools and wider communities.  

As one student leader points out in the EdWeek article, “Empowering students and teachers to speak up and share their ideas on how to improve their schools will be beneficial…Creating more of a culture where students and teachers feel like they can connect with the administration…”

As Jessica Sutter at the Institute for Citizens and Scholars recently wrote in her blog post, Building Connection: Youth Mental Health and Civic EngagementIt is well documented by research that when students – especially adolescents – feel that adults and peers in school care about them as individuals, they feel a sense of belonging and connectedness which helps them thrive. For educators who want to make a difference, supporting middle and high school students to find ways to be engaged in their schools and broader civic community is essential. And, by focusing on connectedness as a civic issue and a critical life skill, educators will catalyze positive change on multiple issues vexing our current generation of teens.”

At Mikva Challenge, we know that elevating student voices can be key to both finding new solutions, and to creating a school culture that fosters connectedness, belonging and engagement for students and teachers. 

Through Mikva’s innovative action civics curriculum and programming, we create community between young people and adults and make space for all voices to be heard as youth discuss – and act on – how to address issues important to them.

This kind of youth-centered and community focused civic education can be a solution to so many of the problems we see in our schools and communities.  It creates connections among students so that they feel a greater sense of belonging in their school as they listen to each other’s ideas and work together on a collective project to improve something in their school or community.  It provides avenues for students to see themselves as powerful, and increases their civic knowledge on how to navigate systems to make change.  Both of these outcomes can also lead to growth in students’ intrinsic motivation as they take a leadership role in their own learning and grow their social-emotional skills. 

So, it was particularly rewarding and profoundly hopeful to see these outcomes articulated in an external evaluation report this fall. 

During the 2022-23 school year, Mikva Challenge partnered with Justice Labs of America, LLC – a program evaluation and research team using a mixed method approach to program evaluation. Through a qualitative approach, Justice Labs and the Mikva team conducted a series of focus groups to look at the impacts of Mikva’s work on students’ civic agency, on the wider school culture and climate, and how adult leaders incorporate youth voice into their decision-making.

This report outlines four primary findings regarding the value of Mikva Challenge programming for youth, teachers, and school district partners:

  1. Increased Awareness of Change Making: Youth who had participated in Mikva programming reported feeling a responsibility towards assisting their communities, as well as felt empowered to create positive social change locally.
  1. Power of Mikva Programming: Teachers and District partners reported positive student engagement, student focus, and witnessing a greater sense of belonging among student participants.
  1. Increased Belonging in Professional Learning Communities: Associated with Mikva programming, teachers reported an increased sense of belonging in professional learning communities.
  1. Students Feel Heard: Teachers and District partners reported that Mikva programming positively impacted students who previously had not actively participated in class discussion or activities to feel more confident in the classroom

You can read the full report here.  The full report provides more details and participant quotes on each of these findings, along with information on Mikva’s model, curricula and programming.  The report also includes data from previous research studies, as well as internal evaluations. 

As the EdWeek article noted, teacher burnout and teacher shortages are also two of the main concerns of adult leaders in education systems across the country. So, we are heartened to see the ways Mikva’s professional learning communities can create an increased sense of connection and belonging for teachers, as well.  

We hope to use this report to spur further evaluation and research into the systemic impacts of Mikva Challenge’s work on school culture and climate for both students and teachers. 

In the meantime, let’s keep prioritizing this kind of engaging, real-world and community building learning in our schools and investing in opportunities for young people to lead.  There is already a lot of evidence that it works.