Examples of Students as Decision-Makers in Education

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:
  1. Involve students directly in an existing adult activity, such as a special task force, school site council, or instructional leadership team.
  2. 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.
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!


Engaging the Whole, Entire, 100% Young Person

I often ask groups to explore different parts of the lives of children and youth. “Schools,” “video games,” “home,” “church,” “friends,” “downtown,” “families,” and on they list. Its funny how we conscript young people to the places they belong and the things they do, rather than who they are. There are different activities used in my workshops to get at that question in different ways, and I like to think that eventually participants leaving thinking about young people as people first; that is, complex, multi-faceted and broad human beings who, like themselves, are unfinished, and who will hopefully never think of themselves as finished (and who we should never think of as such). 

In that image of the “whole young person” I find that as adults, and even as young people, we’re unable to envision the whole life of children and youth. We don’t easily identify the interplay between health and service and family and government and learning and friendship and culture and all those dynamics that enliven, enrich and otherwise make us who we are. Instead, because of our programmatic thinking, we tend to see young people as a singular phenomenom. This youth acts that way, as if it were that simple. In reality, this youth acts this way when they are with us in this setting at this particular moment with these particular peers present that that particular song playing the background. In another moment *poof* they may literally become a completely different person.
What does this mean for programs that attempt to foster engagement throughout the lives of young people? Highly adaptive, totally personalized approaches. There are more programs and resources attempting to address this today than ever before. I have reviewed and seen employed the ASCD’s Whole Child model, which takes multiple perspectives – including students’ – into account. Yesterday a colleague at the Washington State Department of Health also shared this important paper by Joseph Grady and Axel Aubrun of Cultural Logic LLC. My allies at the Innovation Center also offer a dynamic resource from a meeting they held in 2005 about youth engagement across cultures. A First Nations-serving organization in Canada developed a landmark agenda for Ethical Youth Engagement a few years ago, and Jessica Bynoe of the Academy for Educational Development released a paper this year called “Confronting the Glass Ceiling of Youth Engagement.” Each of these resources digs into the reality that no matter what our best intentions it takes more than simple gestures towards engagement for every young person to make meaning from their life everyday.
As youth voice receives more attention in our programming, as youth involvement becomes more of a normative trait throughout our communities, and as engagement is more clearly defined as a desired outcome throughout life, it becomes more imperative to look at all the factors affecting each of these areas. We must begin by considering how we engage the whole, entire, 100% young person – and move forward from there.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

360° Youth Voice

Schools, homes, city hall, places of worship, police stations, art studios, community centers, theatres, government offices, parks, businesses, gyms, radio stations, colleges, public spaces… These are the places in our neighborhoods that can help us begin to envision a 360° approach to engaging youth voice. 

Because of dozens of years of programs and research, to think of engaging children and youth throughout these different environments is not impossible. Instead, we are provided a variety of practical templates, important considerations, useful lessons learned and replicable processes. Here are examples of youth voice in schools, community preservation, city hall, community centers, parks and government agencies.
The challenge becomes identifying how those efforts are connected. How do these different places tie together in order to fuse a wrap-around approach to youth voice?
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Rethinking Prevention

Waiting for a young person to fail before engaging them in their own education is a terrible route to finding your voice. Allowing young people to use drugs, letting them drop out of school, watching them tear themselves and their lives apart is messed up. And yet when I talk about reaching youth and connecting them to our programs I’m thinking about these young people. That’s because the programs I have worked in – including suicide prevention, adult living skills, mentoring and recreation programs – have led me in that thinking. When I began working in the national youth voice movement I was almost immediately steered away from those youth, and I found resonance with people who bucked that thinking in order to work with youth who were like me when I was a kid, including my friends Mishaela Duran, Heather Manchester and LaNovia Muese.

Shhh! I found something out today from my colleague Annie Blackledge… it turns out there is a very sophisticated conversation going on out there about “rethinking prevention” and involving youth in decision-making that affects their lives, and that conversation has nothing to do with our international conversation about youth voice, youth involvement, etcetera. It turns out there is science and law behind this model. While I’m not ready to promote it as the end-all-be-all (there may be issues that I haven’t found in my preliminary scan) I am ready to say that “Response to Intervention“, or RTI, may be a model that we all need to explore, in order to identify its implications for our work. A dilemma is that RTI’s premise might scare a lot of people these days, especially after the last eight years of No Child Left Behind. That premise is that we allow data to drive our programming with young people. The secret here is that a primary data source in the RTI model is… youth themselves.

What if we actually engaged youth in determining the success of every single intervention we were attempting in their lives?!? And I’m not just talking about surveys every month. Instead we’re looking across the spectrum of their analyses, including attitudinal measurements, participation in cultural activities, emotional responses, and other data which has been historically left up to adults to determine and collect. The essence of RtI, from what I can tell so far, is that youth themselves have the primary role in this collection. This flies in the face of traditional youth development programs that rely on adult perceptions of youth needs in order to design the activities. The model also contradicts youth prevention programs that rely on young people doing “bad things” before they got involved. That’s because instead of focusing on just the “bad kids” RtI examines the views and perspectives of every youth.

RtI looks like it has been important in special education [PDF] and working with emotionally disturbed youth. I’m sure there’s already a conversation out there about moving RtI into the mainstream. Also, I’m sure there’s a conversation out there addressing critical concerns, too. I want to see both of these – if you know of them please share.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

When the Truth Isn’t Told

Mike Males is a sociologist and author whose writing has deeply influenced a lot of radical, committed youth workers, myself included. As my own analysis has opened up I’ve continued reading Males, primarily because he keeps digging further into the psyche of adultism in America today. His writing is powerful, as he continuously drills into the heart of the hypocrisy, alienation and cynicism that drives our society’s treatment of youth today.

Recently I visited his site, YouthFacts.org and learned another handful of reality. But perhaps the most poignant summary of his writing is his essay called, “America ’s news media—a cesspool of anti-youth misinformation“. That’s how Males tells the truth – straightforward, brutally honest and incorruptible. Thanks for doing what you’re doing Mike – we all need your guidance.

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New Interview

The latest edition of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory’s Northwest Education magazine features an interview with me about meaningful student involvement. Its called “Students as Partners in Learning: Adam Fletcher Talks about Meaningful Student Involvement,” and its part of an entire (and awesome) issue dedicated to student voice, student ownership and student engagement in schools across the Northwest.

There is a great story about Greg Williamson and his work with Black Hills High School’s Student Engagement Team. I would recommend this entire issue to anyone interested in the practical, application avenues available to promote meaningful student involvement in schools today.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

The Simplicity of Engagement

I admit it, I am guilty. For years I’ve been working to over-complicate youth engagement. In my partnerships with some of the leaders in the field of youth engagement we have sought to identify, explore, examine, re-identify, re-explore, and re-examine youth engagement in its parts and particulars. We have been looking for the sophisticated components, the complex inner-workings of a rather simple thing.

The closest I’ve come to finding that simplicity has been with my friend Greg Williamson, who used to be the student engagement guru at Washington State’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, and who is now among the best independent consultants in the Pacific Northwest, among other things. A few years ago during one of our brainstorming meetings Greg proposed a simple measure for determining youth engagement from a young person’s perspective. He said we could ask children and youth a really easy question, and let their testimony be the marker for determining whether youth engagement does or does not exist. That question? Do you feel engaged or do you feel detached?

In our conversations we decided that was the most simple, most apt way to illustrate the nature of youth engagement.

Now, I know there has to be some framing done, perhaps to the extent of asking the participant what their personal definition of “engagement” is or even sharing a definition with them, but I think this is a good start to finding an authentic, powerful, and simple way to get to the heart of youth engagement: Its about the young people. I want to get back to that place.

Oh, and thanks to Doug Smith for kicking out this graphic, and the others I’ve used throughout this blog.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Teaching Youth Civic Engagement

A lot of people are talking about civic engagement these days. Suddenly there is a popular terminology that captures all the energy for service learning, youth voting, community volunteering and other forms of establishing strong connections within and among a broader community. Suddenly there is a way to embody the best intentions and inherent benefits of democracy into a simple catch phrase. Suddenly…

That energy has constantly informed my work for at least the last seven years. After serving three terms in AmeriCorps I decided that I wanted to combine the energy I had for civic engagement with the commitment I felt towards youth work, and thus began my quest with Freechild. When I started delving deeply within schools I discovered similar opportunities to enrich civic engagement within schools, and consequently I started SoundOut. That is how I became a practitioner of the notion that as members of a democracy we need to strengthen community connections and enriching the roles of young people throughout society.

I believe that same notion imbues schools and community youth programs with a purpose, a goal that is much more relevant, burning and impressive than simplistic youth development. So it is with great enthusiasm that I finally found an exciting and (I think) riveting study from CIRCLE that came out last fall. In it authors Hugh McIntosh, Sheldon H. Berman of Jefferson County Public Schools (Massachusetts) and James Youniss of the Catholic University of America analyze mid-project outcomes from what they called a “Comprehensive High School Civic Engagement Intervention in Hudson, MA.” While the title is clearly not intended to jump out at you in the school library, it definitely tells us that there is a level of intentionality and depth inherent in this piece that has been largely absent from a lot of school-oriented studies in the last dozen years.

They explore the effects of two particular civic development efforts initiated at Hudson High School in September 2003. The first, called “clustering,” focuses on bringing together students in small (150+) student groups around central career/interest areas in order to bond them tighter as co-members of the same learning experience, as well as enrich collaboration among school staff. The second effort is schoolwide governance, which was derived from the idea of establishing “just communities” in schools. The report uses these two major change areas, along with several other significant changes, to frame the research.

The report identifies large school meetings, low participation and the breadth of student leadership as major issues in their evaluation. Major areas of change among the schools’ twelfth grades over the four year study period include:

  • Likelihood of giving money to a political candidate or cause
  • Likelihood of having worked or going to work in a political campaign
  • Likelihood of having participated in any community service (voluntary/required) during past year
  • Likelihood of having participated or probably will participate in a lawful demonstration

Students reported that their political knowledge and community concern had changed significantly, as well.

This is an exciting study because it adds another measure that enriches the case for student voice in schools beyond the simplistic reading/writing/math analysis. To learn more about the study check out the CIRCLE website.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

What Do Students Really Know?

My first opportunity to work in a NYC school was yesterday. The Kingsbridge neighborhood of The Bronx is home to the Walton High School building, a massive pile of mortar that was built a long time ago. Housing as many as 5,000 students only 20 years ago, over the last several years the school has been broken into small learning communities via the Gates Foundation. Contention there has continued throughout the last 30 years, recently embodied by community organizing efforts led by Sistas and Brothas United in 2005.

Today there are five academies operating at Walton, including the International School for Liberal Arts, or ISLA. Earlier this school year Giselle Martin-Kniep, the founder and president of the organization that now houses SoundOut, started a participatory action research project at ISLA. Focused on students perceptions of respect, yesterday I observed the student researcher team as they began aggregating data from almost 500 surveys, representing 3/4 of ISLA’s student body.

I will tell you more about the results as the project progresses; all the same, this was an awesome introduction to a powerful experience. Let me know if you have any thoughts about it.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!