Secondary Academy for Success Transformation Project

SoundOut SpeakOut Conference 2005 in Bothell, Washington

From 2003-06, SoundOut partnered with Secondary Academy for Success in Bothell, Washington, to integrate students into their school improvement planning process. 

SoundOut provided training to nontraditional student leaders at this alternative high school in suburban Seattle. After facilitating a school-wide forum for 150 students on school improvement in Spring 2003, students have joined committees and made reports to the school board on how they think schools should change.

Students Speak Out: How One School Opens the Doors to Meaningful Student Involvement

RESULTS ARE IN! Students have a definite vision of what schools should be like. Their visions include: Students as equals. Interactive, integrated classes. Self-assessment and self-driven learning. Safe, comfortable learning spaces. Modern, diverse, and relevant textbooks. As one student said, “Just the fact that everyone in the whole room agrees on what a school should be like, but there isn’t one like that here.”

Throughout the spring of 2004, over 100 students in a public alternative high school in suburban Seattle partnered with teachers and students from other area high schools to create a plan for meaningful student involvement in their school.

The first step in the Secondary Academy for Success (SAS) plan was a program that included a series of skill-building and planning workshops for a self-selected group of students who were interested in changing their school. These students formed the nucleus of the Student Leadership Team at SAS.

A COURSE OF ACTION and several objectives for the Student Leadership Team were laid out. They focused on creating an all-day, student-facilitated forum where students could discuss the successes and challenges in their learning experiences.

Goals for the forum included:

  • students becoming central contributors to the school improvement process at SAS
  • students experiencing meaningful involvement as both facilitators and participants
  • and students developing a concrete course of action for school change, culminating in a student presentation to school staff.

As one adult facilitator commented, the purpose of this forum was for “Students actually changing schools.  And.. students and teachers… work[ing] together to make that real.” Another said, “We’re going to talk about ‘how you learn best. We want to know what students think is important to learn. And the next part of that is how you want to learn.”

The students and adults involved believed that this route would provide a vital accountability loop to students about the outcomes of their contributions, and validate student voice.

The initial steps of the process included training a group of ten to twelve students as student forum facilitators. The students participated in teambuilding, self-awareness, and critical thinking activities in preparation for their roles as facilitators at the whole-school forum. During these sessions students wrote the discussion questions and sampled a variety of activities in a one-day training event.


DOZENS OF STUDENTS and teachers are holding hands in the middle of the old cafeteria. On “GO!” they start twisting and contorting like a giant circular caterpillar, sending a pair of hula hoops over their bodies and around their group.

The forum was a success. The Student Leadership Team worked with teachers to lead discussions with 70 other students in small groups. After participating in icebreakers and an activity about styles of communication, students discussed what they thought were challenges in schools, and what they thought needed to change. Throughout the day there were several initiative exercises and breaks. When students were done brainstorming, their small groups created visuals that detailed their beliefs about “The Perfect School.” Suggestions came in many forms, including these thoughts from students:

“We think the perfect school would be a school where the teachers are not as much teachers as they are students, and everybody works in a group together on the same projects.  And the teachers and students would have respect for each other.

“Students can pursue their learning in or outside of the school, in formal course work or independent studies. In each case the student writes a contract with a stated goal of learning.”

“There are no grades.  All assessment is merit driven.

“The governance of the schools is handled through your sub-communities, where anyone, including students can join and participate.”

“More academic classes… some kids were really interested in like life skills and knowledge and how to socialize and stuff like Latin and that kind of stuff.”

“How about just learning to get along with people.”

“I want to learn history by like traveling…not traveling, but like going on field trips. Like going places – museums and stuff.  Instead of like learning from a book.  I don’t want to learn from a book.  I want to actually do things.”

One Student Leadership Team member noted, “These [students] really want a place that they can go that is something that they like. A school where they can learn what they want to learn and that they can be comfortable… and be equal with everyone.”

A teacher remarked, “I think the most exciting thing in our group is that the kids are starting to dream. It started really tiny like changing the attendance policy or not getting in trouble if they have three unexcused absences.  And now all of a sudden the box is opening a lot more and the positive list is starting to develop.”

After the forum, the Student Leadership Team compiled notes from the Forum into a written report that was presented to the entire student body in classroom meetings, and to the local board of education. Every student in the school had the opportunity to respond to the findings and to the Forum overall. Reflecting on that process, one Student Leadership Team member said, “It is interesting how much alike different people are as far as their opinions on school are.”

The report also included recommendations on actions that the school can take, and ways to create an environment that supports meaningful student involvement at SAS.

ULTIMATELY, this Forum is just the tip of an iceberg. As one adult at the Forum reflected afterwards,

“These [students] have never ever talked about school like this before in their lives. And it freaks [them] out. So of course they are going to run off, because they don’t even know if adults are really listening. They don’t even know if what they are saying matters. So what needs to happen now is that school needs show them that ‘yes, it matters. We are listening.’”

Research has proven that in order for students to become actual partners in school reform efforts, meaningful student involvement must be a sustainable and deliberate component in school change processes. Through the Forum and Student Leadership, SAS has begun that transformation and created a foundation for a successful – and meaningful – future for all students.



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