School campuses are places where students come into daily contact with other children with different backgrounds and experiences. Children hear, consider and learn from different opinions and viewpoints, and they learn much by coming into contact with each other across the 13-year span of a public education. One of our greatest strengths as a society is our shared belief that we can learn from one another in the pursuit of a more perfect union.

A complete education involves examining issues that are controversial. In the classroom, this is done within the established curriculum and in ways that allow students to develop critical thinking skills while exploring issues, to foster the ability to discriminate between fact and opinion, and to come to conclusions that consider their own beliefs and the perspectives of others.

Because our schools are a crossroads for our society, there are times when students experience controversial issues directly in school. Thankfully, these times occur relatively infrequently. But at these times, issues that touch on personal values and beliefs, political philosophy, culture, religion or other influences become our focus. Solutions are possible only through productive dialogue that leads to a better understanding of the diverse values, beliefs and perspectives of the members of our community. It would seem worthwhile to come together to build relationships across diverse opinions before conflict arises.

Beginning this spring, Visalia Unified will form two advisory groups, one composed of students and one composed of community representatives. These advisory groups are intended to create the relationships and space for conversations related to inclusivity. Why focus on inclusivity? The answer is simple: We have students from different backgrounds who share our schools, and we are made stronger by that shared experience. But at times, those differences can make students feel like they don’t belong in their classrooms and on their campuses, so we must work to recognize and address the barriers between and among students. Controversy almost always is rooted in conflict that touches on personal values and beliefs, political philosophy, culture, religion or other influences.

Although we work with nearly 29,000 students on a daily basis, including the student viewpoints in our work is more difficult than one might think. Classrooms certainly reflect student interests and perspectives, but at higher levels of the organization, those insights are harder to incorporate. Because we were kids ourselves at one time, as adults, we often believe that we know what kids are thinking now. I believe that this is less true than we would like to think, for my experience in working at schools has been that kids tend to be more accepting of change and of others, and more forward thinking than adults.

To bring student perspectives more clearly into our work, we are establishing the Student Inclusivity Task Force that will meet regularly throughout the school year to discuss issues related to student safety and controversial issues. The student group will include about 20 students selected by peers and staff, representing diverse backgrounds and perspectives. The students will open for discussion any issue that allows us a better sense for how certain policies, practices and protocols affect students. The task force will serve as an advisory to the superintendent and the Board of Trustees.

The community advisory committee will be called the Common Ground Advisory. This group will be the adult version of the student task force. It will meet regularly throughout the year, will contain about 20 community members who represent diverse perspectives found in Visalia, and will serve as an advisory body to the superintendent and the Board of Trustees regarding implementation of policies, practices and protocols in light of student interests and controversial issues that affect our schools and community. The Student Inclusivity Task Force will select students to attend the community advisory group to provide their very important insight on these issues. Leadership matters, and having a structure for meeting with community leaders and having open and inclusive dialogue will be a very valuable resource for our school district.

One of our greatest strengths as a society is that we have places where we can consider and learn from different opinions and viewpoints. Schools can be an important forum for civil discourse and while not everyone is going to agree on everything, we can help create a space for students and the community to engage in active listening and caring behavior. The Student Inclusivity Task Force and the Common Ground Advisory are a way to engage with students and the community more effectively for the benefit of all.