Broadening the Bounds of Involvement: Transforming Schools With Student Voice

A group of students gather to protest what they see as a racist school mascot.

The person at the front of the group is a high school-aged American Indian woman, and she is wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. Behind her there are thirty students, each one carrying a picket sign or waving a handbill.

Some of the signs say “Racism out of our schools NOW!” or “Teach Tolerance, Not Hatred.” At the back of the crowd a young person’s t-shirt declares “Youth can be the leaders of tomorrow – if we procrastinate.”


Throughout the nation there is a call that is growing louder and more urgent everyday. It is asking for meaningful civic engagement, for active democracy, and for the power that accompanies leadership.

It comes from the youngest of our nation’s citizens, the students in our elementary and secondary schools. While it hasn’t overwhelmed all schools yet with its energy and passion, the clarion call of empowered voice for young people is spreading across the nation, forming community youth councils and youth-led activist organizations.

When examined for their educational value, these actions should challenge educators with three essential questions: what is student voice, why is it important, and how can schools engage students in meaningful ways throughout their educations?

This article will answer those questions.


In order to acknowledge “student voice,” we must define it, which appears to be simple enough.

Student voice is formed of the unique perspective of the young people in our schools.

It is formed in the same ways that adult voice is; that is, experience and education help students create opinions, ideas, and beliefs to which they give their voice.

All this answers the question “What is student voice?” in a simplistic way.

However, it is not enough to simply recognize that there is such a thing as student voice. In order to truly empower students, educators must acknowledge, employ, accentuate, and enforce student voice throughout schools. In many schools this means students and adults forming partnerships to plan, teach, evaluate, and lead schools.

Students are uniquely disadvantaged in schools, as their ability to voice their concerns and attitudes isn’t guaranteed by the United States Constitution, and subsequent court cases aren’t always held up in students’ favor.

This leaves educators in the powerful position to abuse, co-opt or corrupt student voice in classrooms and school boardrooms. That is why merely acknowledging student voice isn’t enough.


While student voice and meaningful involvement make intuitive sense, there are several imperative reasons why student voice must be heard throughout schools. Following are three such reasons:

Fostering Consumer Input

Many business theories have recognized the essential input of consumers, and some schools have adapted this perspective to improve parental involvement, declaring the parents as the “clients” of schools [i].

However, despite their role as the “end consumer” in schools, students are routinely excluded from these ambitious plans.

Classroom involvement, decision-making, and evaluation opportunities throughout the education system can be essential opportunities for parents and students to collaborate in providing authentic responses.

Students’ vital perspective must not be neglected in these attempts; rather, it should be fostered and engaged in every way.

Bridging the “Student Involvement Gap”

Several studies have shown that many students yearn for deepened engagement throughout education (Patmor 1998, Wade & Putnam 1995, Kushman 1997).

Increasing young peoples’ social awareness and community responsibilities have been the impetus of many communities’ outreach for youths thought to be “at-risk” and apathetic, and these programs have been highly successful in increasing the skills of youth and the attitudes of adults (Cahill 1997, Mohamed & Wheeler 2001, Zelding et al 2000).

As educators move beyond viewing traditional student involvement (i.e. students as hall monitors, teacher’s helpers, student councils and A.S.B.s, etc.) as tantamount to democracy, they will begin to see the potential of engaging ALL students’ voices.

There is dual benefit to this: while the school environment becomes more accepting and thus safer, historically disengaged and underachieving students become involved in engendering school change.

These “change agents” may serve on committees, lead trainings and courses for their peers and adults, and initiate and share decision-making throughout education.

This educational approach views student engagement as a central part of the learning process that helps students develop a sense of responsibility, caring, feelings of connection, and competence (Mohamed, et al, p15).

Building Civic Engagement

Several surveys have been released in the past few years that indicate that our communities and schools are failing to engage young people in their civic responsibilities.

One survey of 15-24 year-olds shows that a majority (57%) say they are not at all likely to run for an elected leadership position (32% in 1998); 53% say they are not at all likely to work for a political party; 50% say they are not at all likely to join a political club or organization; 46% say they are not at all likely to volunteer in a political campaign; 44% say they are not at all likely to participate in a political march or demonstration.

Another survey of 18-34 year-olds indicates that this age group is the least active in all age categories in youth and charity groups, civil rights groups, political groups, attendance of political meetings and rallies, participation in demonstrations, religious service attendance, likelihood to conserve water and electricity.

These are disturbing trends that point at a bleak future for young people and their communities.

While many municipalities around the nation are attempting to engage young people with exciting new initiatives, their after-school, weekend and summer programs can only peripherally affect students’ views.

There is no current measurement that indicates how many students are currently involved in their schools, or in what ways.

However, it is easy to assume that the momentum provided for any student by an education highlighted by meaningful student involvement will empower a lifetime of active civic engagement.

This is invaluable and essential to the health of American democracy.


There are pitfalls to avoid in engaging student voice. Countless barriers must be addressed, including those erected by systems, educators, parents, and students themselves. Educators should avoid viewing student involvement as a privilege. All students’ and adults’ leadership should be absent noblesse oblige, or the sense of obligation to promote student voice to benefit “lowly” students. And the list goes on. However, these concerns shouldn’t be viewed as insurmountable; rather, they are challenges through which the school’s newly established learning environment can grow and evolve.


The vivaciousness of student voice has waxed and waned as trends of activism and community empowerment have swept across the nation; however, its vitality has not. In the 1930s a group of young people read the Declaration of the Rights of American Youth to United States Congress. Among many other things, these young people stated they “have the right to full educational opportunities… We graduate from schools and colleges, equipped for careers and professions, but there are no jobs.”

The fictitious example from the top of the article provides an example of what may have happened at a student-led protest in Seattle on June 6, 2002. On that day a group of high school students were locked out of a Seattle school board meeting, despite a rule making all meetings open to the public. Given this fleeting empowerment, many educators wonder how long the current call will last.

I propose that through a deliberate course of change, schools will become an infinite source of release and input for student voice. Engaging student voice is not a quick-fix or fly-by-night program. All stakeholders in the school must be intentional and deliberate, and allow the process the time and patience it requires to succeed. While there is no formula through which to best engage student voice, I offer the following tips to assist schools in embracing student voice.


  1. FACILITATE STUDENT VOICE TRAINING. Provide student voice training for educators, school board members, administrators, school personnel and students to provide opportunities to develop awareness and build skills, and to provide information and resources.
  2. USE BEST PRACTICES. Develop concise policies and practices to promote student voice for all students throughout their education. Involve all stakeholders in this process, including students, educators, administrators, parents, and other members of the community. Delineate clear and specific expectations and actions to promote student voice through empowerment and involvement. Ensure that all stakeholders are aware of these policies and practices, and that they are employed throughout the student’s education.
  3. INFUSE MEANINGFUL STUDENT INVOLVEMENT. Support the integration of community-centered, project-based, democratic experiences throughout courses with training opportunities and resource libraries. Engage students in designing curricula.
  4. ENCOURAGE YOUTH INFUSION. Local schools should encourage local youth voice initiatives by non-profit organizations, government, businesses and other groups. Promote and support curricular connections with these opportunities as students become further engaged and in need of deeper knowledge to accomplish their goals.
  5. STRENGTHEN STUDENT VOICE. Foster the development and documentation of promising practices among educators and administrators in the local school, district, statewide and nationally. Conduct participatory action research, develop documentation and share information with other educators and administrators in order to promote student voice.
    Democracy is a journey that must start anew for each generation. Rather than just a buzzword, democracy must be an action. If our democracy is to be active, then it must be taught, experienced and lived. By engaging student voice throughout schools, today’s educators, administrators, parents and communities can lay the foundation upon which the future of the United States will be built. In closing, I offer the words of Robert J. Kennedy:

“Our answer is the world’s hope: it is to rely on youth… This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life, but a state of mind, a temper of will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, or the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.”


  • Cahill, M. (1997). Youth Development and Community Development: Promises and Challenges of Convergence. Community & Youth Development Series, Volume 2. Takoma Park, MD: The Forum for Youth Investment, International Youth Foundation.
  • Kushman, J. (Ed.). (1997). Look Who’s Talking Now: Student Views of Learning in Restructuring Schools. Portland, OR: Northwest Educational Regional Laboratory.
  • Mohamed, I. & Wheeler, W. (2001). Broadening the Bounds of Youth Development: Youth as Engaged Citizens. Chevy Chase, MD: The Innovation Center and the Ford Foundation.
  • Patmor, G. (1998). Student and School Council Member Views of Student Involvement in Decision Making In Kentucky High Schools. (Ed.D. Southern Illinois University).
  • Wade R., & Putnam, K. (1995, December). Tomorrow’s Leaders? Gifted Students’ Opinions of Leadership and Service Activities. Roeper Review, 18, 150-153.
  • Zeldin, S., Kusgen McDaniel, A., Topitzes, D., Calvert, M. (2000). Youth in Decision-Making: A Study on the Impacts of Youth on Adults and Organizations. Madison: National 4-H Council.


  • The 2002 Elementary and Secondary Education Act contains the first-ever Department of Education language promoting parental involvement. See for more information. Several consulting companies offer total quality management courses for education leaders.
  • From the Young Citizen Survey, including 1500 young people aged 15-25. Retrieved 8/16/02 from here, and here.
  • From The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, including almost 30,000 people. Retrieved 8/16/02 from here.
  • There are many examples of community youth involvement at The Freechild Project’s Survey of International Youth Involvement, here.
  • Retrieved 8/16/02 from here
  • Retrieved 6/15/02 from here
  • Partially adapted from the Partners Against Hate booklet, Helping Youth Become Change Agents in Their Schools and Communities, retrieved 7/10/02 from here .
  • Retrieved 6/1/02 from here .