Stopping Discrimination Against Children

Recently, a young person from Finland wrote to me for an interview. They wanted to discuss discrimination against children.

Following are the questions they asked and my responses. Let me know what you think in the comments section!

What is child discrimination to you?

Discrimination against children happens anytime adults are biased towards adults. That means that whenever our words, our actions, our thoughts, and our ideas favor adults before children, children are being discriminated against. In order to stop child discrimination, YOU have to define it for yourself.

When was the last time you saw it happen? What was happening?

Discrimination against children happens every single time children and adults interact. This includes almost every parent/child, teacher/student, clerk/customer and caretaker/charge relationship. Discrimination against children happens in schools, at home, in businesses, in afterschool programs, in government agencies, in courts, at the playground, on the athletics field, in neighborhoods and throughout all of our society, all of the time.

  • Discrimination against children happens in the words adults use: Jargon, insistence on manners, and saying things like “You’re in my house and you’ll follow my rules” or “You’ll understand when you’re older” or “Children are better seen and not heard.”
  • Discrimination against children happens in the actions adults take: Building schools and houses at adult heights instead of childrens’, making curriculum and tests to meet dream-up adult wants rather than genuine child needs, and corporeal punishment.
  • Discrimination against children happens in the thoughts adults have: “I’m her parent and I know best”, “I’ll do what I want done here and convince her that its right later on”, and “They’ll just have to do this now whether they like it or not” are some of the thoughts adults have.

I explore all this in-depth in my book, Ending Discrimination Against Young People.

Have you even been discriminated in your life? If so how?

Whether or not we acknowledge it, every single person has been discriminated against in their lifetime. Discrimination is any judgment against anybody, including those made because of our ages, genders, skin colors, socio-economic statuses, cultural backgrounds, religions and more.

I’ve been discriminated against for many reasons, including my age when I was young, and my age now that I’m older.

What are you doing to stop discrimination?

I write books and pamphlets, facilitate workshops and give speeches to help educate people about discrimination against children and youth. My books include Ending Discrimination Against Young People as mentioned a moment ago; A Short Introduction to Youth Rights; and more than a dozen others.

What are ways people can stop it everyday?

As I’ve explained here, discrimination against children is a huge thing that affects everyone. The very best thing that anyone of any age can do to stop it is to listen to themselves, watch themselves and stop themselves from discriminating against children. EVERY ONE OF US discriminates against children, including children. We should listen to our thoughts and words, and hear ourselves discriminating against children. We should watch our actions and see how we discriminate against children. If we choose the company of adults before children, we’re discriminating against children.

After we’ve seen and heard our discrimination against children, we have to ask whether we’re okay with it. If we are okay with it, we don’t have to stop it. But if we’re really not okay with it, we should confront our own discrimination against children whenever, however we can. Then, and only then, should we encourage others to do the same thing.

What do you think? Agree, disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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A Brazilian Interview

In the aftermath of my recent visit to Brazil I have been fielding a few online interviews. Following are my thoughts in reply to a reporter’s questions today. What do you think?


1 – What do you think about the idea of having a more open national curriculum for that age (15-17) so that each school could work with what’s interesting for their specific public?

In order to ensure a minimal ability to participate in democratic societies, it is important for there to be a consistent basic experience of learning, teaching and leadership through open public education for all students within a nation. However, it is also vital to allow for localization in every community and personalization for all students. Notice that I am saying all students and not just 15-17 year old students. Local communities should have the capacity to make effective, meaningful decisions about education for all students, and all students, regardless of their age, should have appropriate, meaningful opportunities to make decisions about their own learning. National curriculum standards should be made that facilitate that local decision-making and personal decision-making, along with policies that sustain long-term infrastructure, fiscal support, professional development for educators, and additional training as its needed.


2 – What needs to change in schools so that it is more interesting to young people and help reduce evasion?

All education should be made consensual between students and adults. Before undertaking learning, teaching and leadership, all people who are involved should understand what they are committing to. Students and adults should know what the alternatives are, because there are always alternatives. And everyone involved- young and older- should be able to say “yes” while retaining the power to say “no”. The time of forcing students to attend schools has been overshadowed by the era of choice that we live in today. With the unfettered ability to make consumeristic and social choices throughout their lives, young people need schools that support their abilities rather than repress them. Consensual education is the key to keeping schools relevant and meaningful into the future.

3 – In Brazil, teachers in the public educational system are very underpaid. It seems unreal to engage students when you cannot even engage teachers. How do you see this issue and the alternatives to tackle it?

Teacher pay is a real problem in North America, too. Undervalued for their contributions, teachers face many injustices in our imbalanced economies. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” In the United States and Canada, the death of the human spirit is made worse by consumerist pressures and the grinding inequities faced by low-income people and people of color. That said, money alone does not prevent teachers from engaging with their jobs, schools, communities, or the students they teach. Using economics as an enabling device can support further oppression and disengagement, as teachers can use it to rationalize their indifference, inability, or adultism. Adultism, which is bias towards adults and against young people, is apparent anytime adults work to fulfill our own agendas without considering or by dismissing the agenda of young people. Students in schools face adultism constantly, whether its teachers setting the school calendar, government officials creating curricula, or voters determining which political party rules the education system in the current election cycle. Engaging students throughout the education system can begin to challenge these disparities between students and adults, and teachers can be key partners in that effort regardless of how much money they get paid.

What questions do YOU have about my visit to Brazil or the things you’ve read here? Please comment on my blog!

Interviews about Freechild and Social Justice

Today, I answered a pair of interviews from students studying Freechild. The first came from Sopheak Va at Arizona State University, and follows here.

1. What exactly do you do at  The Freechild Project? 
Freechild provides training, tools and technical assistance to young people and adults working together to change the world. Our trainings are for K-12 schools and nonprofit organizations, and focus on youth-led social change, youth-driven programming, youth involvement in decision-making, and adultism. Our tools include our website and more than 50 publications, including free ebooks and books for sale on Our technical assistance happens online and in-person, and highlights everything mentioned so far.

2. What is The Freechild Project about and what do they bring to the community? The mission of The Freechild Project is to advocate, inform, and celebrate social change led by and with young people around the world, especially those who have been historically denied the right to participate. We do this by facilitating training and workshops, and through our website.

3. What is your motivation and how to you stay motivated doing what you do? 
I grew up as a poor, white Canadian undocumented immigrant in a low-income African American neighborhood in the Midwestern United States. While I was growing up, my family volunteered a lot throughout our community. My parents believed that we should always give back whatever we can, so we gave our time and energy. I still do that through Freechild, and I teach others

4. What are some obstacles or difficulties have you encountered while trying to raise awareness? Adultism is the most oppressive force facing young people today. This bias towards adults leads to youth discrimination everyday, and it is single-handedly destroying families, communities and the fabric of society. You can learn more about it in the book I wrote.
5. What do you feel is your greatest accomplishment(s) for the organization and personally? Our tremendous reach has served as an indication of our success. Since 2001, Freechild has partnered with more than 500 organizations to serve 1,000,000 young people and adults in 750 communities. Our trainers have taught thousands of hours of classes, and our free ebooks have been downloaded more than 10,000,000 times. Our materials are cited more than 1,500 times in a variety of publications both online and offline. However, I think the greatest accomplishment for me personally is having individual youth in struggling communities across the US reach out to us for assistance. It feels great to be of use.

The second interview comes from Michael Andrew Burkeitt from Temple University.

1. Do you think cases of social injustice are happening more frequently?

Social injustice is an inherent function of societies that place material value before human value, and because of this its been present throughout the course of humanity. As a culture, we’re learning to see social injustice, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been around before. If anything, our consciousness is helping elevate our society towards eliminating injustice – but we’re still a long, long ways away.

2. Why is this? are we examining with much more scrutiny?Yes. What some people call “political correctness” today is a heightened awareness of social injustices on the individual level. However, many people have been aware of social injustice for a long time, whether it was Abraham Lincoln in the 1850s or Augustus in the Roman Empire. Social justice is not new.


3. Do you feel that policing measures and tactics are a cause of the increase? Absolutely not. Policing is merely a symptom, and not the cause. Today, the cause is American capitalism, which has spread like a virus around the world and infected societies worldwide. But even American capitalism is just the modern incarnation of the injustice machine. Anytime anyone values any THING before people, there will be injustice.


4. Finally, where do we go from here? How can we best prevent social injustice from occurring moving forward. We need to radically re-envision society and work towards the new world that is possible, every single one of us. That begins with young people are goes towards everyone else in the world. Everyone, everywhere, all the time needs to be involved in critically examining what currently exists, re-envisioning what can be, and creating the new world. Everyone, everywhere, all the time. Moving forward, anyone who works with any other person anywhere at anytime can begin sparking these conversations, facilitate these conversations, and participate in these conversations as often as possible for whatever reason. Only from there will we begin to move the bar of injustice that’s suffocating so many people today.

Scholastic Administrator Interview with Adam Fletcher

“Meet Your New Boss,” an article by Caralee Adams, is a rambling homage to what I have named Meaningful Student Involvement, and what she simply titled student input. Adams managed to interview almost every major figure in the student voice movement in the United States, including me.

Working from the question, “Ever asked students to weigh in on how their teachers are doing? Find out how these schools incorporate student opinions into key decisions, and why this can make a school stronger and better,” Adams shoots her article all over the place.

In addition to mis-reporting that I’m not working with schools anymore, she did quote me saying the following:

“We can change all the rules we want, but back here in reality land, until the hearts and minds of people leading the system-teachers or principals or district administrators or state superintendents-are [changed], those policies and rules don’t really matter,” says Fletcher. The real barrier is the attitude of adults. 

“They are inherently threatened by the capacity of young people to lead their own education.” Yet, integrating student feedback throughout the school can lead to some of the best results in engagement and learning. “There is no place throughout the education system that young people cannot have deep and effective levels of impact that adults can’t have,” says Fletcher. “Everything can be better because of student voice.”

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Interview About Inspiring Youth

A high school student from Montana sent me a few interview questions last week, and I thought I’d share my answers with you.

What would you consider the best way to inspire youth to become more active?

After more than 20 years experience working and teaching adults how to inspire youth, I have learned the best way to inspire youth to become more active throughout their lives is by making action relevant to their lives right now. 

Instead of trying to get all young people interested and inspired in faraway places doing strange things, I think we need to connect young people within the issues and through the actions affecting them most right now. Their schools, towns, neighborhoods, community centers, governments, all these places need to have their doors thrown open and made relevant and meaningful to the lives of youth right now.

The issues that affect young people most, like education reform and democratic process and nonprofit programs, need to be made accessible to youth right now. Adults need to approach youth to find out what they think they need to be engaged in, too, the things that are closest to their hearts and minds right now. That’s the best way. 

Is there a better way to inspire and inform youth than hoping a teacher down the line will mention world events?

Absolutely. The fact of the matter is that every young person is engaged right now. Every one. It might not be in ways adults recognize or approve of, but they are- video games, boy/girl friends, sports, graffiti, whatever. We can use those mediums to engage young people in social change. We can develop online opportunities, athletic activities, and date nights focused on changing the world. We can host graffiti competitions, dances, and carnival/parties focusing on changing the world.  

These might seem trivial to adults, but these ways can attract young people to widen their engagement from being myopic or self-centered towards being socially-minded and justice oriented. There are plenty of ways young people can and should inspire other young people right now.

Let me know if you want to know anything more about what I shared.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Deseret News Interview with Adam Fletcher

Youth engagement opportunities abound to teach kids about activism, philanthropy, service
By Lois M. Collins, Deseret News
Published on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011 10:36 p.m. MDT at

SALT LAKE CITY — Cherise Udell is cooking pasta primavera for a few dozen strangers. Her daughter Sophia, 7, and Sophia’s best friend Shae Sorenson, 8, are helping with simple tasks. In a little while, all three will haul the food down to Pioneer Park to feed the people staying in tents as part of the Occupy Salt Lake demonstration.

Sophia and her little sister Ella, 5, have been learning about social change and active participation since they were even smaller. Mom co-founded Utah Moms for Clean Air because she worries about pollution’s effects on health, especially on children. Their dad, Kent Udell, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah, tackles global projects in a different way. Recently, he emailed photos home from Madagascar, where he’d gone as a volunteer with Engineers without Borders to bring clean water to communities that have none.

The Udells are civic-minded, interested in teaching their children to give and protest and work and volunteer in street-level pursuits. It’s a great thing to donate money to a cause. But there’s something special about touching the cause with your hands and solving a problem with your action.

It’s called “youth engagement,” and children and teens can make a big difference in their world through activism, philanthropy and voluntarism, says Adam Fletcher, who a decade ago founded the Freechild Project, based in Olympia, Wash., to celebrate the spectrum of ways in which youths promote social justice, change and caring across America and Canada.

“There are so many young people from different situations economically, educationally and socially who are doing cool, cool things focused on changing the world, from the very local to the international,” he says. “I started Freechild to celebrate these things.”

Over the course of a century, he notes that children have gone from being passive recipients to being active partners in world change, whether it’s the smaller local world or the global playground. And there’s never been a better time to harness their enthusiasm to take part.

“Our society is in crisis mode. More things are going wrong than ever before. The social situation, the education situation, the economy — a plethora of things are at a crisis point. The dilemma is that as a society we have ignored or denied (childrens’ and teens’) ability to solve anything. In reality, it will be them, whether now or in 10 or however many years as adults, who deal with many of the problems.”

Schools, youth organizations, civic clubs, churches and others have discovered that they can design opportunities for the young to make a substantial difference, Fletcher says.

Children and teens in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and service clubs, church youth groups and others nationwide are volunteering, tutoring, mentoring other youths, raising money for causes and more. There’s now even a public engagement office in the White House and the president has hosted two dozen youth forums.

You don’t have to look far to see the variety of ways in which children, including some young ones, are participating. And there seems to be something to engage almost anyone.

San Francisco-based Generation Waking Up, for instance, focuses on helping youth lead a cultural effort to build sustainability. Its website seems to take the task very seriously: “A new generation of young people is waking up. We are the middle children of History, coming of age at the crossroads of civilization, a generation rising between an old world dying and a new world being born. We are the ‘make-it or break-it’ generation, the ‘all-or-nothing’ generation, the crucible through which civilization must pass or crash.”

The Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), out of New York City, is networking education organizations in a “youth-driven fashion.”

Manateens, in Florida, are trying to save the manatees. Seattle has the Seattle Young People’s Project that picks different activities and causes. The list is long.

It doesn’t have to be altruistic to matter, notes Fletcher. He talks about a fifth-grade Utah class that lobbied the school board for a library and got it. They weren’t the only beneficiaries. Actions can be self-interested and local or very global and gigantic. They can help kids starving in Somalia or provide company for a lonely senior. It all matters.

Activism is hard to quantify. Volunteer efforts are a little easier to count. Agencies that benefit from volunteers are accustomed to tracking volunteer hours. And even that misses a lot — like the families that play chess at a nursing home because they want to. Or the young man who routinely shovels snow for a neighbor because it needs doing. Or a church youth group that makes quilts for a children’s hospital.

Still, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University ( says voluntarism among Americans of high-school age peaked in 2005 at 33 percent, but then dropped to less than 29 percent for four years, when the most recent figures were calculated. That may be “a cause for some concern because it may mean that high schools may not be offering opportunities for students to serve at the same rate as they once did or that there are fewer places in the communities for youth to serve,” CIRCLE said in a fact sheet about youth volunteering over the last decade.

“I take my sons, Jess, 14, and Eric, 9, with me when I teach literacy,” says Julie Bellows of Wichita, Kan. “I am the volunteer of record, I guess. But I’m teaching a 32-year-old mom who can barely read and they are a huge help with her kids, who are 4 and 7. I think they contribute as much as I do. And I want them to see their mom doing, not just disappearing for a few hours each week. And I want them to do, as well.

“I believe they will remember that we reached out as a family. And when I’m gone, they’ll still be doers, not just talkers.”

Sophia and Ella Udell see mom cook for or do the laundry of the people sleeping in tents. They attend an occasional rally with her. And beforehand, she talks at the girls’ levels about why they are doing whatever it is. They also as a family “foster” kittens, which is particularly appealing to Sophia and Ella.

Cherise Udell has taken them to feed the hungry and says she coaches them gently about making eye contact with homeless people and treating them like everyone else. She wants them to be compassionate — and willing to jump in when they see a need.

“It’s extremely important to me,” she says. “I do what I do because I am passionately inspired to do it.”

She hopes they’ll feel as passionate about whatever they choose as their own causes or programs throughout their lives.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Christian Post Interview with Adam Fletcher

“Study Shows Young People Prefer Traditional Values in Politics”
Originally posted at

By Gina E. Ryder, Christian Post Contributor
The Christian Post, Mon, Oct. 10 2011 10:25 PM EDT

A recent Gallup poll released last Thursday revealed a surge in the percentage of young adults who said the government should promote traditional values.

In an utter reversal of Gallup’s historical patterns, Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 are now more likely than older Americans to say government should promote traditional values.

“When young people say they are looking for traditional, they are really looking for familiarity,” Adam Fletcher, director of Free Child Project, a youth political advocacy group told The Christian Post.

In their most recent survey, Gallup asked 1,017 Americans age 18 and older this question: “Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?”

The results said that 48 percent of Americans thought the government should promote traditional values and 46 percent responded saying they thought the government should not favor any particular set of values.

“Young people attach to the vision of what America is and not to what the political parties represent it to be,” said Fletcher who has worked with 10,000 young people a year for the last 12 years.

According to Fletcher, young people today wanted the American dream in an authentic democracy. They aren’t looking at political parties but rather the future-oriented issues that America stands for.

“Traditional values are fully inclusive, meaning that young people have roles in society as active partners not as passive recipients, “ said Fletcher who said his role as the group’s director was to reinvent roles for young people throughout society.

Because of the recent rise in the percentage of young adults who thought the government should promote traditional values, Gallup suggested that the overall trend in this view might be only temporary.

“The trends by age raise questions about how permanent the shift in the overall trend is, with younger adults showing a recent surge in preference for advancing traditional values,” said Gallup’s analysis. “Normally the views of young people are on the leading edge of social change.”

The Free Child Project provides training for schools, non-profits and government agencies interested in using engagement all around the country.

Fletcher told CP, “Young people want togetherness, acceptance and a real sense of belonging. They want to be engaged. The traditional values that they are looking for are values that really looks at the future as being promising.”

The percentage saying they thought the government should promote traditional values peaked twice at 59 percent, first in January 1996 and then again in October 2001.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

District Administrator Interview with Adam Fletcher

Power to the Students!
Student empowerment is becoming a catchword—and a way of life—on campuses around the country.

By Ron Schachter, contributing writer for District Administration.
District Administration, May 2010, Sat, 05/01/2010 – 12:00am
Originally posted at

When Adam Fletcher was hired as the student engagement specialist for Washington state’s education department 10 years ago, it didn’t take him long to realize how difficult his newly created job would prove. “No one was talking about the roles of students other than as learners,” says Fletcher, referring to a state teachers’ conference early in his career. “They laughed out loud at the proposal of students being partners in school improvement. It really was preposterous to them.”

It didn’t help that the federal No Child Left Behind law followed a few years later, which focused the attention of educators on getting high standardized test results rather than getting students involved in shaping the culture of their schools and playing a role in how those schools operate. “Here I was holding up this sheet of glass,” he explains, referring to his newfangled ideas, “as this large lead ball of NCLB rolled down a mountain toward it.”

The landscape faced by Fletcher, who has since become an educational consultant and one of the country’s leading advocates for student empowerment through the organization SoundOut, has undergone a transformation as schools and districts have discovered the value in engaging students in more than academics. And those students have responded, from taking the lead in educating themselves and their teachers on a variety of topics to becoming activists for school-related issues from teenage suicide to service learning to better nutrition during the school day. And in some cases, say principals and other educational leaders, they are improving their academic achievement along the way.

Activism in Anne Arundel

In the Anne Arundel (Md.) County Public Schools, student involvement has become a districtwide priority. “When you listen to our superintendent [Kevin Maxwell] talk at the school board meetings, he emphasizes that we are truly about challenging our students to become a greater part of our society,” says Heather Jenkins, who directs Anne Arundel’s Student Leadership and Involvement Office. “It’s expected from the top down.”

In 2005, Maxwell created a superintendent’s Teen Advisory committee, composed of two student representatives from each of the district’s high schools, which meets with him and other district officials three or four times annually. Recently, student input from this committee has led to changes such as providing dinner for students in the evening high school program and revising course curricula to better facilitate the service learning projects—from tutoring to running a Toys for Tots campaign—required of all Maryland high school students. “A lot of positive things have come from having this direct line to the superintendent,” says Jenkins.

She also coordinates the efforts of student representatives from the district’s 32 middle and high schools in the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils (CRASC), a county student government association. The group runs monthly general assemblies, forums on issues from school discipline procedures to the district’s curriculum, and student leadership workshops at individual schools on topics such as group functioning, project planning, and running effective meetings.

CRASC also elects the student representative to the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, which determines the budget and policies for the district’s more than 100 schools. Jenkins points out that Anne Arundel is the only district in the country to accord this student representative full voting rights on the board of education.

Several years ago, one such student helped the district save thousands of dollars a year with an idea to streamline the school bus schedule during exam periods. “Our student board member doesn’t sit back,” Jenkins says. “And anytime the board of education looks at a policy impacting students, the members look to the student member.”

Recently, CRASC members testified before Maryland’s state legislature, which is exploring having other districts in the state give voting rights to students on their boards of education. That kind of activism has rubbed off, Jenkins points out. “A few years back, students were not allowed to carry their books in backpacks for safety reasons,” she recalls, “and some students approached the principal at one middle school to reach a compromise with ‘see through’ mesh bags.” “This goes on everyday,” Jenkins explains. “And the students here realize that when they change something, they are becoming part of something greater.”

A National Program in San Diego

While Anne Arundel’s student empowerment initiatives are homegrown and wide-ranging, other schools have availed themselves of more-specialized existing programs, from those aimed at having students exert positive pressure on their peers to running parent-teacher conferences to raising awareness about school nutrition.

For the past four years, San Diego’s Mission Hill High School has participated in PLUS (Peer Leaders Uniting Students), a program created in 1999 by California-based educator John Vandenburgh and implemented in dozens of high schools and middle schools around the country, to foster greater inclusion and better communication in school, and to have students themselves lead the process.

“There are a lot of kids on campus who want to help, to listen, to exert positive peer pressure,” says school and PLUS counselor Cherryl Baker. “We gave them an opportunity to step up and have their voices heard.”

An initial group of 35 Mission Hill students attended a two-day, 12-hour training program consisting of group activities and discussions about issues that most affected their lives in school, especially bullying, name calling, and excluding fellow students.

Since then, these students have facilitated more than a dozen four-hour forums for almost 500 of their Mission Hill peers, as well as annual forums at two nearby middle schools.

“The kids are trained to say, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ and to realize that one person can make a difference,” says Baker. “We’ve had kids with troubled pasts who were the bullies in middle school and have taken ownership and admitted that they were wrong,” says Baker. “This awareness of the impact that their actions have had on others is huge.”

PLUS has also evolved from being an after-school club at Mission Hill High School to an in-school class, and its members have organized awareness-raising lunchtime activities, including drug and suicide awareness days. “Kids will listen to other kids way easier and faster than to an adult,” observes Baker, who adds that PLUS fulfills an outreach mission that the school’s counseling staff would otherwise be unable to accomplish. “We’re short staffed, and our case load was very large. And our greatest resource right here is the kids. They know what they need.”

“When you include kids in the process, it gives them ownership and responsibility,” adds Nelson Beaudoin, a former high school principal in Maine and the author of Elevating Student Voice: How to Enhance Participation, Leadership and Citizenship.

The New Parent Conference

At other school districts, students have taken on the responsibility for running the traditional parent-teacher conference, an approach that developed around the country during the mid 1990s and has continued to gain in popularity.

Twice a year in the Francis Howell School District in St. Charles, Mo., all middle school students take charge of parent conferences by presenting highlights of their work in various subjects, suggesting ways that they could improve, and outlining action steps to that end. “It’s all about the students, so why leave them out?” says Sue Hartman, the principal at the Mary Emily Bryan Middle School in the Francis Howell district.

Even though teachers at the school assemble a portfolio of student work, the students themselves fill out information on what they need to do better, Hartman explains, and learn how to present a portfolio and set goals. “The kids like to talk about themselves and how they’ve done,” Hartman says. The meeting also endows Francis Howell’s students with a heightened sense of responsibility, which they are willing to take on, Hartman continues. “Kids that age don’t usually sit down and take a hard look at what they’re doing and how they need to improve,” she says. “They can see that they have control over their learning.”
Nutritional Leaders

The changing roles and responsibilities for students—from the elementary grades to high school—have even seeped into the ground, in the form of proliferating school gardens that produce food for the school salad bar, and more.

The Seattle-based Puget Sound School Gardens Collective helps students in western Washington grow and harvest an assortment of vegetables on the grounds of dozens of elementary schools, and in the process raise awareness of better nutritional habits. “Some report eating more fruits and vegetables,” says Erin MacDougall, who directs the program. “And they love to toss a salad with other kids who may not have participated.”

Supervision of these gardens has depended mostly on volunteers, from teachers to AmeriCorps volunteers, adds MacDougall, who has organized “summits” so that they can share practices. Two years ago, MacDougall secured a grant to create the Food Empowerment Education and Sustainability Team (FEEST), aimed at getting students from two high schools in an underserved Seattle neighborhood in the Seattle Public Schools to better understand the food system in their community.

The program began as a weekly potluck dinner, at which almost 50 team members discussed issues of better nutrition, especially the inclusion of more fresh fruits and vegetables in diets, while eating produce from a local farm.

The students have since started raising their own produce behind a local cultural arts center, and MacDougall says that their discussions have progressed to the level of social justice, especially since their neighborhood has 24 convenience stores but not one full-service grocery store.

“They talk about how it’s harder to get healthier foods there than in a grocery store in an affluent neighborhood. They’ve become engaged and empowered to want to do something,” she says, noting that some have begun working with their school lunch programs to make them more nutritional. “It’s amazing how it’s gone from potlucks to owning it,” MacDougall observes. “They just needed a seed.”
Remaining Challenges

Those who advocate for and practice greater student empowerment say that this approach still faces widespread resistance. “Adults just don’t think students are ready for such responsibilities. It’s such a hurdle,” notes George Patmor, a Murray State (Ky.) University education professor who has studied student engagement. “To them, planning for the prom is as far as student involvement goes.”

Patmor also warns that school and district leaders can fall prey to token student involvement in decision-making instead of the real thing, especially on advisory panels to school principals. “Students have to see that what they’ve expressed and the decisions they’ve made are carried through,” Patmor says.

It’s also not clear that increased student involvement in school affairs will always translate into higher standardized test scores or higher academic achievement. Mission Hill’s Cherryl Baker says although she cannot quantify the difference that PLUS has made to its participants, she’s seen plenty of anecdotal evidence.

“They’re held to a higher social responsibility,” Baker says. “If they’re talking to kids about not drinking or doing drugs, they can’t be out partying on Saturday night. If you’re flunking out of classes, you’re not helping.”

And Baker adds that such students are going to be good neighbors. “They’ll open the door for the old lady. They’ll watch their neighbor’s child while the neighbor goes for a job interview,” she concludes. “They have that innate sensitivity that lets them be more empathetic. That’s powerful stuff. That’s a lesson for all of us.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!