March 29, 2024

What a walkout at a Maryland elementary school teaches us about students’ potential to be changemakers

Be sure to check out the suggested Huddle question at the bottom of this article to discuss this important topic with your students in class, if you feel it is appropriate.

In recent years, educators have seen an increase in student walkouts. From Colorado to Minnesota, students are walking out of their classrooms to raise awareness for causes they care about. In many cases, these walkouts are an effective way to bring public attention to important issues. For example, millions of students walked out of school on March 14, 2018, in response to gun violence, and the story dominated news headlines and social media.

While older students often lead student walkouts, elementary school students are noticing how powerful their voices can be, especially when they come together to peacefully protest as a group. A recent example from Viers Mill Elementary School (VMES) in Silver Spring, Maryland, proves even the youngest of students can make a difference. When over 50 elementary students walked out to protest their school losing Title I funding for the 2024-2025 school year, administrators listened and promised change.

When students come together to protest a cause they care about, they learn essential skills, including leadership, listening to diverse perspectives and ideas, working together, and tackling complex issues. As educators, we can empower students to use their mic for good, whether through peaceful protests or another avenue. Let’s explore what the walkout at VMES can teach us about supporting students in standing up for what they believe in while ensuring the entire school community feels safe, heard, and in the loop.

Title I funding cuts spark concern at VMES

The walkout at Viers Mill protested Maryland’s decision to remove VMES’s Title I status, which is a program that provides federal aid to schools with high student poverty rates. For the 2023-2024 school year, Viers Mill received $517,400 in Title I funds. The change came after Maryland moved from using school lunch data to state-level support data to determine qualifying schools; VMES falls short of the new threshold to earn funding.

VMES families fear funding cuts mean losing enrichment programs like summer school and several teachers. Several VMES students in Girl Scout Troop 5383 came together to plan a walkout as a response. They invited other students at their school on board by speaking up on how vital Title I funds are to VMES, writing a petition, sharing flyers, and creating posters for students to hold during the event. 

VMES educators were critical to the walkout’s success. They supported students in developing a strategy and ensured they stayed safe during the event. Principal Matthew Hawkins informed families about the walkout and a potential partnership with a local company to preserve free summer school. The protest proved successful, catching the attention of district leaders: interim superintendent Monique Felder committed to keeping at least one teacher at VMES for the upcoming school year.

The VMES walkout underscores educators’ important role in empowering students to use their mics for good and stand up for causes they care about. Educators at VMES were students’ allies and mentors, supporting their safe, peaceful protest and helping amplify students’ voices. This event also showcases the power and impact of student-led initiatives in driving positive change. By building a culture of empowerment, collaboration, and advocacy, educators can help students become effective agents of change.

How to empower students to engage in positive advocacy

While the VMES walkout was a response to funding changes, it mirrors the larger trend of students using established protest techniques like walkouts to speak up on issues they care about. Whether students are in high school or elementary school, educators can support students in their advocacy efforts.

Here are some strategies to empower students to use their mic for good, no matter how old they are: 

  • Facilitate debates on controversial topics. Organize debates on topics relevant to students’ lives, like school policies or social media regulations. Encourage students to research the topic thoroughly to understand both sides’ points of view. Through these debates, students can learn how to form solid opinions and support their ideas with strong, well-informed arguments.
  • Challenge students to try out different advocacy methods. Using our mics for good may look like planning a protest, but it can also involve writing letters to local officials, posting on social media, or speaking up at a school board meeting. By designing activities that let students try out these different methods, they can discover what works for them to make important changes.
  • Ensure everyone’s voice is heard. When students feel heard and valued, they see their opinions and values as important and feel more confident speaking their minds outside the classroom.

Walkouts can be powerful, but they’re only one way of speaking up about what you believe. For more ways students can use their mic for good and how educators can empower them to do so, visit our lesson, Being a changemaker: making your voice heard by those in charge

#WinAtSocial Huddle Question

Huddle with your students
Now that we’ve seen an example of a walkout going well let’s think about how we could get things back on track if a protest faced some road bumps. What challenges might students face when advocating for change in their schools or communities? What are ways to address these challenges?

The Social Institute (TSI) is the leader in empowering students by understanding students. Through #WinAtSocial, our gamified, peer-to-peer learning platform, we equip students, educators, and families to navigate their social world – in the classroom and beyond, online and offline – in healthy, high-character ways. Our unique, student-respected approach empowers and equips, rather than scares and restricts. We incorporate timely topics about social media, tech use, and current events that are impacting student well-being and learning. #WinAtSocial Lessons teach life skills for the modern day, capture student voice, and provide school leaders with actionable insights. Through these insights, students play an essential role in school efforts to support their own health, happiness, and future success as we enable high-impact teaching, meaningful family conversations, and a healthy school culture.