High School Students Share Their Biggest Challenges

State education policies are rooted in the day-to-day operations of schools and the students that learn and grow in them daily. This is why Commissioner McQueen tasked each member of the department’s 20-person leadership team to go back to high school for a day and shadow a student. Individual members of the leadership team visited high schools in every setting: rural, urban, suburban, and everywhere in between.

As department leaders traveled across the state for their shadowing experience, one of the most important things they sought to understand were the challenges facing Tennessee students. While each student’s feedback was unique, they described obstacles that we know many Tennessee students encounter.

Gaining Real World Experience

The commissioner’s Chief of Staff, Jayme Place, heard overwhelming feedback from students that they wanted the opportunity to experience their future before leaving high school. One student, who was thinking of becoming a nurse, wished he had the chance to shadow a professional health care provider before he followed that pathway; another student wanted to experience the daily work life of an engineer before heading to college and pursuing a field he might not actually enjoy. Assistant Commissioner of College, Career, and Technical Education, Danielle Mezera, heard something similar: “Students reported a lack of opportunity to gain experiences outside of the classroom in preparation for their postsecondary experience.”

Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operations Officer Kathleen Airhart learned about the difficult time management choices that some students have to make early in their high school careers. Her host student was balancing a rigorous academic schedule with a desire to participate in extracurricular activities, but wished she had more time to participate in career and technical education classes. Deputy Commissioner Airhart reflected, “There needs to be a better balance to allow students to explore interests without committing to a fulltime load. This student is thinking of majoring in either engineering or physical therapy, and yet she has limited opportunity to explore those options while in high school.”

School Culture & Student Engagement

Department leaders also discussed challenges within the walls of the school building. The department’s Executive Director of District Support, Meghan Curran, said, “While all the students I spoke with had teachers they really loved and respected, they noted that they want to work in class, not just sit there. Generally, they said they were not engaged by their teachers.”

Other students reported lack of engagement with school culture. Nate Schwartz, the department’s chief research and strategy officer, said his student described lack of student support for the school community: “I was told that not enough students seemed to care about the culture of the school.”

Lack of Resources

Students also shared concerns over lack of resources, both in and out of school. The director of schools for the Achievement School District, Malika Anderson, recognized the challenges of poverty: “My host student shared that the biggest challenge that students at her high school face is poverty. Nearly 80 percent of her peers are economically disadvantaged. She wants her school community to know how helpful it would be for them to raise funds to purchase better study materials and equipment.”

The department’s executive director of conditions for learning, Mike Herrmann, discussed concerns over the cost of college with his host student. “My student believes that the best way to help would be to provide hands-on assistance with scholarship applications and more ACT prep classes.”

Regardless of location, we know that Tennessee high school students face innumerable challenges, ranging from balancing their family and academic lives to juggling extracurricular activities and sorting out a future still unknown.

One of the department’s biggest goals for Tennessee is for the majority high school students in the class of 2020 to earn a postsecondary certificate, degree or diploma. The only way that the department can support districts, schools, and students to meet this goal is to better understand the unique circumstances our students face. While being a teenager is never easy, the department strives to create and refine student-centered policies that support students as they plan and work for their future.