Leading by Listening to Students’ Voices

Of all the traits of a strong school leader, one of the most important is listening to students. By addressing their concerns & suggestions, school leaders can build environment where students are seen & heard.

That’s what we found when ED recently visited Western Branch Middle School in Chesapeake, VA to interview Principal S. Kambar Khoshaba, recently named Virginia’s 2021 Outstanding Middle School Principal of the Year by the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals. As we talked with Dr. Khoshaba about his leadership style, we saw the pride he takes in helping to make Western Branch a place where everyone has a voice.

Welcoming and inclusive
We didn’t just hear about inclusivity from Dr. Khoshaba – we saw inclusivity throughout the school’s hallways, with walls welcoming students back to in-person learning & reminding them of the importance of being together. In one stretch of the hallway, we found placards for each of the school’s clubs, designed & painted by students. Including students even goes down to their school’s garbage bins in the hallways; through the school’s “One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure” project, students painted & designed the bins to make the school’s hallways more engaging, featuring everything from environmental themes to cartoon characters. All these efforts taken together show a school that wants students to be heard, represented, & included, even as they move through the halls from class to class.

Beautifying Campus
The sense of community continues outside the school’s walls, as students & staff at Western Branch have taken up projects to help improve the school grounds. Dr. Khoshaba has joined his students on the weekends to plant flowers outside around campus to beautify the exterior of their school, creating a welcoming area for students when they wait for pickup at the end of the day. But these projects go beyond beautification; students also created gardens for their fellow classmates with special needs, giving them a structured opportunity to learn outside the classroom in an environment that best suits them – a fantastic example of how the attitude of listening to & including students starts at the top and runs through the entire school.

Handle with Care
While it was clear that students have a strong voice at Western Branch, one of the strongest ways the school listens to students happens behind the scenes. Dr. Khoshaba told us about the “Handle with Care” program, through which parents can email to let school staff know if their child needs to be “handled with care” because of a personal issue, such as an illness or death in the family, a divorce, or other situations that might disrupt a student’s day. Even though it’s not a student-proposed improvement like an art project or garden, it’s yet another way that Dr. Khoshaba and Western Branch lead by prioritizing student voice.

But perhaps the best way to characterize how Western Branch listens to students comes from Dr. Khoshaba himself: “It’s important to us to make sure that our school reflects today’s kids,” he said, “and that today’s kids are reflected in the school.”