Serving the School as Community

Originally published as:
Fletcher, A. (2006) “SoundOut: Serving the school as community,” ServiceLine Journal 16 (1). Page 3. Olympia, WA: Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The agenda of schools is routinely set by adults.

“Educating the future workforce,” “Promoting abetter tomorrow,” and even, “Making a better democracy,” are all goals found plastered across schools throughout Washington. Recent statistics show that 92% of any given school’s total population is made of students themselves, and that students routinely spend anywhere from six to ten hours a day at school.

However, when was the last time students themselves had a voice in determining the goals of education?

I founded SoundOut in 2003 to respond to this inequity. After carefully studying research supporting student voice, I held informal conversations with students, teachers, administrators, and other allies across the country that helped me form a new vision of education. At its heart, this vision is service-learning: it centers on infusing radical democracy throughout the education system, where adults partner with every student as they learn, teach, and lead democracy throughout society.

SoundOut has several projects, including a growing Internet resource center for educators, school-wide leadership training for students and adults, and student-centered programs for schools. Our most successful project so far has been the SoundOut Student Forums. With the support of the HumanLinks Foundation in Bothell, Washington, SoundOut has worked with more than 500 students and educators in 12 schools from each corner of the state to foster student involvement in school improvement.Working with a principal-selected cadre of traditional and nontraditional student leaders in each school,SoundOut trains participants to solicit, analyze, and aggregate student voice centered on changing schools.

Using these findings, the student leaders partner with teachers to design and implement action plans responding to the most urgent student concerns.In some cases students also correlate their findings with their school’s formalized improvement plan, increasing the efficacy and sustainability of their findings and action plans.I have found that students are more than willing to share their thoughts, emotions, ideas, and dreams about school – when given proper respect, encouragement, and safety.

One of the biggest roadblocks I’ve experienced hasn’t been students’ reception; instead, it’s been adults. When told that their students are going to be encouraged to speak frankly about teaching styles, classroom curricula, or the learning environment, a few teachers in each school actually act aggressively towards their students, using their authority to threaten students.This serves to extinguish any enthusiasm students may have felt for the project; worst still, it encourages other teachers to do the same. More than one school building leader has approached me excitedly about hosting the SoundOut Student Forums in theirschool, only to leave their students “hung dry”when teachers complained about the outcomes ofthe forums.There have also been some glorious occasionswhere you could almost feel the culture of a school change.

In a 2005 training event sponsored by OSPI, the assistant principal of a rural high school led his students towards a SoundOut training event pragmatically, privately revealing to me that, “We’ve got to find some way to connect with our kids, in a massive and real way. They’re moving out of town too fast, and we need their energy to keep the town alive.” That sort of desperation falls heavy on any facilitator’s shoulders, and I am adamant telling people that I don’t offer any “silver bullets” for their schools, let alone entire communities. However, within two days the students from this school left the training charged, committed to helping their peers see the necessity of staying in town and making it a better place. Moreover, the school’s principal showed up at the closing of the event to thank me personally, because, as he said, “I could feel the energy of [the assistant principal] and the kids over the phone!” Calling in on them recently reconfirmed my hopes, when the “Student/AdultPartner Committee” leader (a student) told me that everything was going excellent at his school, because of the SoundOut training.

The SoundOut Student Forums embody a powerful model of service-learning by engaging students as full members of their school community.This authoritative position actively builds on students’ interpersonal communication and critical thinking skills, as well as building their sense of civic responsibility by extending their notion of community.Students work extensively with adult partners and their peers to identify real community needs within education; this strengthens the collaborative process at the heart of effective service learning. The entirety of the project is contingent upon student voice, and embeds reflection throughout.Recently, SoundOut became a program of anew national nonprofit organization formed in Olympia called CommonAction.

Focusing on promoting democratic youth-adult partnerships throughout society, SoundOut fits perfectly withinCommonAction’s mission. We are actively seeking new schools to participate in our training and programs, as well as funders to help the project take wings. With luck, the notion behind SoundOut will grow well beyond our meager number of schools; we only hope to support this movement as it goes there. I would love to hear what you think.

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Brain Research and Meaningful Student Involvement

There are fascinating intersections between brain research and Meaningful Student Involvement. Luckily, they are becoming clearer with time and more commitment from researchers.

Brain research routinely shows that even the youngest of students have the capacity to participate in critical deconstruction of the learning activities, teaching styles, and curriculum content they’re taught. Research also shows that given increased opportunities to exercise responsibility, children and youth increase their capabilities to exercise their rights.

This effectively shows that its really not a case of whether students are ready to be engaged in fixing schools; instead, its whether adults are actually capable of engaging them in doing so.

Students of all ages and capabilities are being engaged as partners with adults in improving schools increasingly throughout schools.

Research shows a variety of brain issues are affected positively by Meaningful Student Involvement, including student ownership, student agency, motivation and more. This means that when paired with student/adult partnerships, a variety of strategies can greatly enhance classrooms and schools.

As I continue rebuilding the SoundOut website, I’m going to keep making these findings more explicit and obvious. I hope this will create a compelling, unstoppable narrative that education leaders, politicians and parents cannot deny.

There are many reasons why Meaningful Student Involvement should be at the center of education reform today. Brain research shows yet another.


Related Articles

  • Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook by Adam Fletcher
  • 32 Resources on Meaningful Student Involvement
  • SoundOut

Elsewhere Online


Student Voice is Not Enough

Student voice is not enough. Hundreds of studies, thousands of projects and dozens of advocates are calling for more and more student voice without saying plainly what schools really need. The answer is not student voice.

Meaningful Involvement Matters

Adam Fletcher's 2011 Ladder of Engagement
Learn more from my Ladder at here!

When I began my research and projects focused in schools 15 years ago, few people were talking about student voice or student engagement in any substantive ways. There was some research that was spread across the spectrum and generally disconnected over disciplines (education leadership, ed psych and curriculum) as well as geography.

Right away though, I drew on my experience in community-based youth engagement advocacy to determine that simply asking for schools to listen to student voice wasn’t enough. Unfortunately, even the most well-intended teacher and high-minded student cannot navigate the school system deftly enough to actually create systemic change without intentional, deliberate and substantial opportunities to do that. Listening to student voice is not what that is.

I developed Meaningful Student Involvement as an approach specifically to help educators navigate the brave to world of student voice and student engagement that started to emerge in the 2000s.

As time as carried on, I have been unable to teach everyone, everywhere the tenets of my approach. Despite working with almost 500 K-12 schools across the United States and Canada, the expectations adults have for students are so utterly low that we believe that students simply showing up to participate in these conversations is better than nothing at all – even if we have to tell them what to say!

Seducing Student Voice

Unfortunately, the reality is that it is better for student’s to muffle their voices on their own rather than be tokenized, hijacked or otherwise manipulated by adults within or outside of education to say what adults want them to.

Alas, having their voices solicited, manipulated or used by educators, advocates or politicians is a seductive experience for many young people. We live in a society that values overt leadership, active engagement and explicit expressions over personal leadership, passive connectedness or subtle yet sustained engagement. Because of that, the student who says, “Listen to me, listen to me!” is always going to get more attention than those who don’t.

Unfortunately, without confronting this reality, student voice will actually help the situation get worse, not better. Student voice will only continue to perpetuate our previous expectations of student leaders, and as such is only a continuation of the norm: Students who are involved will become more involved, and those who are will only become more more disengaged.

The Solution to Student Voice

Rather than creating exceptional experiences for exceptional students to become engaged in sharing student voice in exceptional ways, there is a solution to student voice perpetuating the wrong things.

To the chagrin of some, I would never suggest that the whole school system has to be demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. Instead, I recognize the need to work with what we have and move it towards what it could become.

From my study of students who have actually transformed schools, I believe that all programs must adopt a form of the following strategy:

  • Deepened focus: Rather than simply promoting student voice, all organizations must focus on meaningful student involvement, which focuses student engagement through student/adult partnerships in order to transform schools and communities.
  • Broadened application: Organizations and programs must use a three-prong approach to transforming the entirety of the education. Those three prongs are changing attitudes, transforming cultures, and reforming the structures of education.
  • Systemwide infusion: Rather than being satisfied with making headway in one area of schools, programs for meaningful student involvement should gather the entirety of the education system as their target of transformation. That doesn’t mean not to start in one place, it just means to keep the rest of the situation in mind while taking action.
  • Strong learning connections: Students are constantly learning, and any program for meaningful student involvement will have learning at its core. Adults in the education system should work to infuse student voice into classrooms by ensuring students get credits for their engagement throughout the education system.
  • Sustainable structures of support: Get sustainable by seeking, building and reforming policies and procedures to foster meaningful student involvement throughout the educational system.
  • Make friends and build family: Students should be infused throughout ongoing, sustainable school improvement activities in the form of learning, teaching, and leadership throughout schools, districts, states and every single school improvement activity. Every school should be in a continuous mode of improvement; every single improvement effort should seek nothing less than to engage students.

Those six characteristics are at the core of meaningful student involvement, and they represent the real potential of student voice. They solve student voice.


To learn more about this idea, check out my Frameworks of Meaningful Student Voice. Feel free to contact me to talk, too!

Are You REALLY Committed to #StudentVoice?

Adam training youth at Eastern Washington University in 2012.
Adam training youth at Eastern Washington University in 2012.

Are you really committed to engaging student voice?

If you’re an educator, administrator, policymaker or adult ally to student voice anywhere throughout the education system, you need to check yourself. We all do.

When working with students as an ally, its important to keep the focus on them instead of shifting it from them to us as adults. We should not, must not and cannot use students to say what we want them to. More than simply being unfair, adults who use student voice for our own agenda are being dishonest and unethical.

Here are eight questions all adults can all ask ourselves to find out whether we’re genuinely committed to student voice.

Student Voice Commitment Test

  1. Do I believe all student voice matters?
  2. Do I believe every learning relationship matters?
  3. Do I believe students aren’t incomplete?
  4. Do I believe total responsibility for learning must be shared with students?
  5. Do I believe students know things?
  6. Do I believe in equity, not equality, between students and educators?
  7. Do I believe schools need to be about learning, teaching AND leadership?
  8. Do I believe student voice requires more than just talking?

Next Steps 

If you answered an unequivocal “yes” to all eight of these questions, you are genuinely committed to student voice.

If you answered “maybe”, “sometimes” or “kinda” to any of these questions, then you are on the road to commitment. I’d recommend you order my book, The Guide to Student VoiceIt provides a short, but deep intro to the depth of student voice.

If you answered “no”, “never” or “not a chance” to any of these questions, but you want to learn more, check out my free ebook, Meaningful Student Involvement Guide to Students as Partners in School Change.

No matter what you do, consider doing something right now to engage student voice. They aren’t waiting for you, and if you personally don’t do something right now, schools are going to continue their slide towards the future by becoming more and more irrelevant to learning, teaching and leadership throughout our society.

A Renewed SoundOut Program


Challenging Student Voice

Recently I was discussing the latest developments happening in the mainstream education conversation today. Student voice is bubbling up more and more frequently across the radar, with folks ranging from curriculum writers to test makers talking about it. Of course, educators continue to share their thoughts on social media, along with students themselves. This is all very powerful, and a wonderful development to finally see emerge after more than a dozen years on the national circuit promoting student voice throughout education.

Increasingly though, I’m concerned about the direction that student voice is taking. It seems most conversations are intent on tokenizing student voice, minimizing the roles students can play in schools. Last year I released a book called The Guide to Student Voice in order to help shift this conversation and move it towards a more holistic, powerful picture of what students can do.


Today, I’m pleased to announce the re-release of the SoundOut Program. Based on a curriculum I developed in 2007, today the SoundOut Program has operated in more than 25 districts across the U.S. and Canada, and has been adapted in Australia, Brazil and the U.K. too. With my new promotion, I’m glad to bundle the curriculum itself in several new ways, featuring new elements and activities, and building new relationships with districts and state agencies around the world.

Features now include:

  • Lesson plans for classes, programs and events
  • Professional development
  • Evaluations
  • Technical assistance
  • And more!

Let’s move student voice further! Check out the SoundOut Program and learn how!

Reflecting on Brazil

In November 2014, the Centro de Estudos e Pesquisas em Educação, Cultura e Ação Comunitária (Center for Studies and Research in Education, Culture and Community Action), or CENPEC, hosted me for a weeklong visit to São Paulo, Brazil. As a longtime consultant focused on youth engagement, I have become accustomed to touring across the North America to teach, speak and work with all kinds of diverse communities. However, nothing I have ever done paralleled this trip. Over the course of eight days, I spoke to eight different groups, workshopped with more than 300 youth and adults, was interviewed by several newspapers and television stations, and met with countless educators, activists and policymakers from across Brazil.

CENPEC is a nonprofit organization based in Brazil. Its main goal is to develop initiatives towards improving the quality of public education and promoting civic participation. Focused on public schools, public educational spaces in general and public policymaking, CENPEC challenges inequality and promotes social inclusion. Much of its work focuses on assisting the Brazilian government to build innovative policies for youth, in and out of school. Lilian Kelian, who works with CENPEC, found me from my writing. Here is a little more of that story.

Brazil 3
My learning began as I left Seattle, with Lilian as a kind and patient teacher for the rest of my journey.

During my appearances in São Paulo, I shared experiences and lessons I have learned through the course of my career. I facilitated workshops on youth/adult partnerships for young people and adults there with Programa Jovens Urbanos, a cultural program working in three cities across Brazil. Using interactive activities and working with an excellent translator, I found it challenging to explore the concepts of equity and equality between children, youth and adults. However, the enthusiasm of the youth and adult participants carried me and we had more than a few breakthroughs. The young people shared experiences from their own lives that sounded similar to what I’ve heard in my work across the United States and Canada: Whether inadvertently or on purpose, adults consistently use demeaning language, act in discriminatory ways, and generally treat children and youth in demeaning ways throughout our communities. These participants taught me that the effects of this are felt in schools, at cultural centers, throughout communities, and across Brazilian society.

To say that São Paulo is an enormous city doesn’t quite do it justice. There are 20,000,000 residents of the city, which makes it 2.5 times the size of New York City. Descending into the city, the skyscrapers seem to roll on and on in a never-ending quest for space. After a rushed beginning to my time there, midweek my life slowed down when I was taken on a tour. We went to a low-income suburb on the outskirts called Campo Limpo. The first organization I was introduced to was at the Casa da Mulher da Criança, which houses União Popular Mulheres. Built in a small house, I was shown an education center, a drop-in center for children, a textile center for women in the community, a professional kitchen, a computer lab in partnership with the Agencia Popular Solano Trindade, and a small office for a community bank called Union Sampaio. All of this was crammed into a humble space, and as it was carefully explained to me, it was all driven by the local community—not by government mandate or driven by government funding. I was astonished to meet a community center that was actually driven by the community it served! I also got to explore another cultural center, this one packed with active programming for young people that was happening while I was there. It included a program styled after Theatre of the Oppressed, capoeira and a few other activities. While I was at this second organization, I got to meet a group of youth who worked as program staff in this center. Harkening back to my own experience as a young person, it was energizing to find resonance with young people doing similar work more than 20 years later halfway around the world.

I met many organizations during the week. One of the most impactful experiences I had was learning about The Tree School. The Tree School is one of the most dynamic, engaging educational projects I have ever learned about. Focused on decolonizing knowledge, The Tree School was founded by two organizations: Campus in Camps, an experimental educational program based in Bethlehem’s Dheisheh refugee camp in Palestine, and Brazilian-based art collective Contrafilé. As I learned about this school, I learned the history of the baobob tree in Brazil and the potential for fully consensual schools that are based on non-hierarchical relationships between adults, children and youth. This will definitely expand my work in school transformation that I began with SoundOut. You can learn more about The Tree School from this pdf.

Brazil 1
My last presentation was at the Seminário Internacional: Educação + Participação = Educação Integral. In this session I was credited with introducing the nation of Brazil to the concept of adultism, which is bias towards adults. Expanding on the ways adultism happens throughout society, I drilled in on schools and youth work directly, exposing some of the ugly assumptions that underlie our well-meaning but poorly informed intentions to teach children and youth. I was paired for this session with Marcus Faustini, an education activist and community organizer from Rio de Janeiro. Talking in-depth about his passionate work with youth in Rio’s flavelas, the audience laughed, gasped and clapped in both of our talks, but for different reasons. I quickly understood that Marcus and I were brothers following different roads towards a common goal, and I admired him, too.

At this same event, I was reminded by one of my hosts about the other time I’d visited Brazil. In 2004, I was invited to present at a conference focused on developing youth polices across the country, on the local, state and federal levels. She explained to me that I had left an impression then as my reports on North American youth policy had been used nationwide to inform the creation of youth involvement policies. I was told that because of my work a decade ago, youth councils, youth voice training programs and other activities are now the norm in several large cities, and they are expanding in more rural areas now. As a consultant, I am used to posing questions and challenging norms to which I don’t get to see outcomes. Suddenly, I was confronted by stories that what I had done a decade earlier made a difference. If that weren’t rewarding enough, the conference moderator announced at the end of the Seminário Internacional that what I shared this time would inform policy and practice for at least another decade. More than gratifying, that it was humbling to think that a philanthropic foundation would invest in me to travel 8,000 miles to teach my philosophies and practices in another language in hopes I would inform work to improve a nation’s educational practices. But to have that investment affirmed at the end of my work there was wholly empowering for me, personally and professionally.

The whole trip affected me this deeply. I felt a deep political affinity to many of the people I met there, an affinity that restored some of the faith I’d lost in the concept of Community. The self-defeating anarchism and alienating capitalistic tendencies I am surrounded by and part of here in the Pacific Northwest frequently exhaust me. In my consulting practice I take great pleasure at working in different parts of the US and Canada, if only because I meet people equally committed to democracy building and genuine social transformation. However, in Brazil that went to a whole different level where I felt a political communion with peers that I haven’t felt in a long time. Restorative experiences are good for anyone’s soul, and mine felt at home.

Learning about some of the radical political action in Brazil re-centered my viewpoint on what people within communities can do to improve conditions for themselves and others. The real meaning of social change soaked through the stories of the cultural centers I visited, the activist art I saw, and the evolutionary practices I saw underway with children, youth and communities. Mostly though, the whole trip reminded me that I am skilled, knowledgeable and valuable to people and communities. I had to travel halfway around the world to see that, and to have that affect me deeply. I am still learning right now, and estimate that I will for a long while.
Instead of another run-of-the-mill jaunt to help summon change across the country, this trip took me to South America in order to take me deeper inside myself. At this point in my career, I can’t imagine a more powerful, positive and restorative experience. Now to get back to work and make something of myself!



Raising Expectations for Students AND Adults

The second aim of Meaningful Student Involvement has very complex implications for every role in every part of the education system. (Learn more about the Aims of Meaningful Student Involvement.) It states:

Aim 2: Expand the expectation of every student in every school to become an active and equitable partner throughout education.

Traditional roles for students in schools can be limiting in many ways. Meaningful Student Involvement acknowledges the central role students have in educational reform by building the capacity of schools for meaningful involvement.



In the history of schools, students were expected to be the merely passive recipients of adult-driven education systems. They were to show up when adults want, learn the topics that adults wanted, and behave the ways that adults expected them to.

However, technology has heralded many changes that schools have not adapted to. Sure, there may be computers in every classroom and Internet throughout every school, but many teachers still have not learned to actively engage students as partners in learning, teaching and leadership throughout education. This is what students today demand in order to make their learning relevant.



Those three elements—learning, teaching and leadership—should be integrated into every classroom for every student. That means that even the most disaffected learner still has opportunities to make decisions about their own learning and other students’ learning. It means that transient students get to evaluate teachers and curriculum. It means that all students get to research learning, plan activities, and be active partners no matter what their status in schools.


Any Activity?

Some researchers have been using the phrase “student/adult partnerships” lately to describe any occasion where adults engage student voice deliberately in schools. That is an excellent way to build interest in the concept. The unfortunate part, though, is that it minimizes the potential of what students could be doing throughout schools. Partnerships are not easily entered into relationships that should be thrown around for feel good activities. Instead, if we consider the background of partnerships in law, we can understand student/adult partnerships as fully active, mutually invested opportunities for each party to recognize the full humanity of the other. Students need these activities with adults starting when they are young so they can build their skills and knowledge across the span of their education careers.


Equity, Not Equality

There is a challenge when adults treat partnerships as equal though, because students are not equals to adults. While they are full humans with a wealth of knowledge and abilities, they do not have the same knowledge, abilities, or experience of adults. This necessitates creating equitable partnerships between students and adults. Equitable student/adult partnerships are vital for many reasons, not the least of which being that they recognize the uniqueness of each party involved. They validate the perspectives or students with romanticizing them, at the same time as they recognize the appropriate authority of educators and support staff throughout the education system.

Raising our expectations for students should go far beyond academics, because it is not just the academic life of the student affected by schools. Student/adult partnerships appropriately elevate student voice, as well as the roles of students and adults throughout the education system.


Questions to Ask

  • What do students’ current roles throughout education say about adults’ expectations for students?
  • Whose responsibility is it to build student engagement for all students?
  • Should everyone involved in the lives of students be charged with changing their perceptions of students?


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Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at
Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

Adults Ignoring Reality

One of the most powerful experiences in my career has been to be part of the emerging Student Voice movement. After rattling around the US and Canada promoting student voice for a decade, in 2012 I heard from several different young people and adults that they were starting campaigns to promote Student Voice. Some of them burnt out quick, but a few have kept going. Joining the ranks of the long-timers, these campaigns have had tremendous impacts on K-12 schools across the nation, and its been exciting to be part of.

One of the greatest concerns that I’ve developed, though, has been the homogenization of Student Voice. It was something I feared when I wrote the Meaningful Student Involvement Idea Guide back in 2002. When adults start listening to students, they routinely and almost inevitably whitewash those voices and gloms them into one convenient, predictable and easy script. Suddenly, all Student Voice is the same, with adults hearing students saying the same thing in the same ways, no matter what their backgrounds, experiences, or ideas actually all.

There are a lot of problems with that, not the least of which being that its inauthentic and dishonest. Maybe the worst thing to happen is that it robs students of their diversity, which no other place in society does.

With adults ignoring reality, it becomes vital for a counternarrative to emerge. Something has to balance out the stereotyping and invalidity this Student Voice represents.


10 Questions for Authentic Student Voice

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to see whether you’re ignoring reality:

  1. Do your Student Voice activities engage students who are not traditional student leaders?
  2. Are some of the responses you receive about Student Voice surprising or upsetting to you?
  3. Have any of your Student Voice activity participants ever failed a class? Gotten in-school suspension? Been suspended from school?
  4. Are there more ways to listen to Student Voice than simply talking and listening?
  5. Do the adult allies in your Student Voice activities reflect the diversity of your school’s student body?
  6. Are students’ hesitant to talk in your Student Voice activities?
  7. Do Student Voice activities routinely discuss diversity, difference, stereotypes, or other daily realities of students?
  8. Can students share things that adults might not agree with?
  9. Do students actually share things adults do not agree with or appreciate?
  10. Can students do things, or are their actual voices all that should be heard?



If your school genuinely values Student Voice, it is essential to make space for all students to be heard no matter what they have to say. Its also important to understand that Student Voice is any expression of Any Student about Anything related to School. You can find more information about how to engage diverse students at

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