COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. — As school leaders tackle concerns such as student mental health and vaping, District 833 has decided to hear from a new expert — students.

On Monday, a group of about 40 students hosted the inaugural Student Voice Summit at Park High School. The students led presentations and discussions with peers on mental health, vaping, cultural awareness, college and career readiness, and school safety.

“We have 19,000 excellent minds that are sitting right in front of us. And sometimes we're not asking them the right questions,” said South Washington County Schools Superintendent Keith Jacobus. “We're asking them content questions, but we also wanted to ask them leadership questions and how they could be involved in making our school better.”

Students in sixth through 12th grade have been appointed to youth advisory committees for each middle and high school, which were established four years ago as part of the district’s plan to increase personalized learning. This year, those advisory committees worked together to prepare this conference, said literacy specialist Leah Boulos.

The idea for the event comes from a student conference in the Las Vegas area, she said.

In Nevada, the Washoe County School District began hosting student-led conferences about five years ago.

“Student voice became a big topic in our school district,” said Michelle Hammond, student voice coordinator with the Washoe school district. “It basically arose because our department of accountability, who has data points for everything, started realizing that we could have a ton of qualitative data, but unless we take that data back to the kids and talk about what it really means ... We’re kind of just spinning our wheels.”

For one of the conferences, students decided to focus on dress code. Afterwards, the school district revised its policy to make it more equitable, especially regarding gender and race, Hammond said.

At District 833, administrators hope to collect and review ideas generated from the conference, Jacobus said.

“The main goal in all of this is for the students to see that their ideas are translated into actions that make a difference in the school district,” Jacobus said.

Students said the experience of organizing the conference has helped them build skills in tackling difficult issues while making new friends.

“I’m hoping that it introduces more open conversations,” said Woodbury High School junior Maeve Boler. “I feel like a lot of kids right now, if they were to talk about mental health in school, they would feel judged.”

Through preparing for the conference, middle school students have learned more about mental health than most students at that grade level, she said.

“It’s facilitated a lot more conversations between students, as well as made me talk to more people and gain more friends from it,” she said.

Woodbury High School junior Ellie Joyce, who gave a keynote speech and co-led the cultural awareness session, said ahead of the conference that she hopes discussions will help students learn how to ask and receive the help they’re looking for with cultural concerns.

“I love this experience because as students, we feel like we have a voice, and we feel like someone is listening and we have support on our ideas and ... we can make a difference in our district,” she said. “We’re kind of teaching students … how to get teachers to help them in effective ways, instead of shying away and handling a problem on their own.”