I like to think that my radar is wide. A few years ago my colleagues at Youth On Board in Boston asked me to research the following information, and this morning I decided to share it here. There are descriptions of specific ways that schools can involve students in policy, curriculum, governance, and other aspects of school life.
There are several levels of decision-making that happen in schools, including those affecting individual classrooms, whole schools, citywide and regional districts, state education agencies, and the nationwide education system. Nationally there are a growing number of local schools where student involvement in decision-making is becoming the norm. Many districts have had policies that support student involvement for decades, although few are deliberately enforced. Almost half of all states have some form of student involvement in that level of decision-making, while there are few opportunities for students to be directly involved in national decision-making. I have identified two main approaches to student involvement:
Involve students directly in an existing adult activity, such as a special task force, school site council, or instructional leadership team.
Set up an activity just for students, such as a student advisory board or a peer mediation group.
In some cases, you can incorporate both approaches: for example, have students on an adult task force, but also have a student action forum where students identify important issues the school should address. Remember that there is no “right” approach; you should consider what will work best for your school or education agency. Let me know what you think!
If you’re a headmaster or principal, you can form a Principal’s Advisory Board by asking 6 to 10 students whom you respect to help you process the issues you encounter in your position. Ask them to give you good advice about how things are going in the school and how you can do your job better. Lead teachers or other school leaders can also form personal advisory boards. In Bethel, Connecticut, the Principal’s Advisory Group at Bethel High School launched in February 2000. It started out with 12 participating students, and in just three years, this decision-making group has grown to include more than 186 students and 13 sub-committees. This is a non-elected student body that will look at all aspects of life at Bethel High School. They will make suggestions and recommendations to the principal and Student Congress. Students address a variety of issues, including teacher hiring, the yearly master schedule, and planning key events at the school.
Student advisory boards have no governing authority but serve an official advisory capacity within a school or education agency, offering regular feedback and advice on student issues. In Arlington, Virginia, the Arlington Public School District School Board actively seeks input from students through the Student Advisory Board. The Student Advisory Board consists of high school students who provide a student voice on matters of importance to the School Board. They study important issues and make relevant recommendations to the School Board.
Task forces are short-term entities created to complete a special project (such as renovating school facilities) or to address an urgent problem (such as violence at school). Often task forces are organized when a school is given funding to be used for a specific purpose. These can be student groups or mixed groups of students and adults. In Bothell, Washington, students at the Secondary Academy for Success, a suburban alternative high school, facilitated a forum for 100 of their peers and students at other schools who wanted to contribute to the physical and philosophical restructuring of their school. Students led an all-day forum, with assistance from adults, and discussed the most relevant issues on their minds. They submitted a concise report to guide future efforts, and have been installed as permanent members on the school improvement team.
Students can take part in advising school policy committees regarding curricula, academic codes, hiring, budgeting, or other pertinent issues. Like student advisory boards, policy committees have an official, institutionalized role even though they do not necessarily create or implement policy. In Seattle, Washington, NOVA Project is a small alternative high school in the Seattle Public School District, created in 1970 by students and teachers. Committees addressing every policy-related issue govern the school through consensus based decision-making. Membership is voluntary and includes both staff and students, each of whom have an equal vote. Teachers serve on one or more committees, and model leadership skills. Student participation in committees gives young people a stake in their education, and encourages responsibility in their personal lives as well.
Students can be great staff members. Think about how your school can hire them. Students can be given the responsibility of planning an event or program, or acting as peer leaders in school activities. In Olympia, Washington, a national education program called Generation YES has engaged more than 100,000 students as teachers. Students in the GenYES program receive credit for teaching teachers how to use technology in their classrooms. Students also teach their peers and younger students to use technology in safe, effective ways.
Have students help you hire new teachers and staff members by making them members of the faculty hiring committee. In the final phases of the interviewing process, it’s very important to find out if a prospective teacher can relate well to students—and who better than students themselves to rate a candidate’s abilities in this area. Students don’t have the final say on hiring decisions (unless you want them to), but they can offer invaluable input. In Federal Hocking, Ohio, the local high school regularly includes students as members of teaching hiring committees as part of their commitment to building a democratic learning community. While the official mission is to help young people prepare for flexible career choices, active democratic citizenship, and lifelong learning, students understand what they are trying to accomplish in school, and they are making real choices about how to get it done.
By working with education decision-makers, student advisory boards provide a direct way for adults to access the opinions, ideas, knowledge, and experiences of young people. In Boston, Massachusetts, the Boston Student Advisory Council, or BSAC, is a citywide body of student leaders representing their respective high schools. It serves as the voice of students to the Boston School Committee, the equivalent of a district school board. Student participants offer their perspectives on high school renewal efforts and inform their schools about relevant citywide school issues.
The responsibilities of local school site councils vary across the nation; however, many are responsible for creating and reviewing school improvement plans, making funding decisions, and hiring principals and administrators. Many have regular voting positions for students; some have representative non-voting positions only. In Gonzales, California, students on Gonzales High School’s Site Council have full voting rights, often making decisions on curricula, services for special needs students, teacher training, and more. There are 2 students on an 8-person board.
Most schools nationwide have some form of student government. It’s important to give students a voice in school issues and a chance to learn leadership and organizational skills. However, it is also important to give student governments real responsibility, and to remember that students can address education issues beyond those that students specifically. In Oakland, California, Oakland Unified School District has a unique program called the All-City Council Governing Board (ACCGB). It is comprised of eight student-elected student representatives and represents six different high schools. The students coordinates district-wide events, and represents OUSD students at various community and district events. Currently, student representatives on the ACCGB meet regularly with the state administrator to propose school improvements, and position themselves on district-wide decision-making committees.
The education reform movement has encouraged many schools to develop sustainable, effective methods for engaging a variety of partners in formal school improvement teams. These teams are increasingly recognizing the value of including students as partners. In Portland, Oregon, the Northwest Regional Education Lab, or NWREL, has piloted a powerful programs in schools in California and Oregon that promotes student voice in school improvement teams. Students contribute powerful, effective feedback to adults through structured student-led conversations, and students and adults work together to analyze the feedback and incorporate it into school improvement plans.</div
Students can be powerful advocates for student involvement, as well as for other changes that students want in policy or governance. It makes a big difference for a student to say what students think; adults tend to listen to student advocates in a different way than we listen to each other. Student advocates can attend School Committee meetings and make presentations or proposals about their ideas. In the Bronx, New York, high school students with Sistas and Brothas United, a youth-led community organizing group, created an agenda for school change, and advocated for change at local school board meetings through presentations and rallies. Their work paid off: a small school has been established that is dedicated to the students’ social justice agenda.
Student trainers can be effective trainers for other students and/or adults. For instance, students can lead trainings around a special curriculum, such as interpersonal violence or environmental issues. On Vashon Island, Washington, students from StudentLink, the local alternative high school facilitated a service learning training event for teachers and youth workers from their community. Over two days student trainers taught about the basics of service learning, implementing a project, and assessing youth voice.
All of these approaches are tried and true, and assure that student involvement isn’t just another tokenistic or simplistic process; rather, it is a powerful, effective avenue to assuring learning through school-focused action. Greater goals can occur, too. Let’s find out what they are!