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Student Voice in School Building Leadership

In a growing number of schools across the United States, students are becoming involved in decision-making activities that affect themselves, their peers, and their whole school. Many schools wrestle with exactly which decisions to allow students to make.

In a growing number of schools across the United States, students are becoming involved in decision-making activities that affect themselves, their peers, and their whole school. Many schools wrestle with exactly which decisions to allow students to make.

George Patmor conducted a statewide survey of high school schools in Kentucky. He measured 310 students and adults opinions about how students should be involved in school decision-making.

The following fourteen activities are taken from Dr. Patmor’s dissertation. He drew them directly from the school-based decision-making model adopted by the state of Kentucky as a main component of their education reform efforts in the 1990s. For each choice there is a rationale and possible learning application.

New Roles for Students in School Leadership

Here are some new roles for students in school leadership. These aren’t the only options, and should be seen as a starting point rather than the goal.


Deciding the number of employees in each school position. Students can be involved in prescribing the personnel resources dedicated to a topic in order to better meet their needs. In the process they can learn about the budgetary ability and the systemic structuring of the education system.


Selecting textbooks and instructional materials. Who better to choose what students can learn from than students themselves? With appropriate instruction and guidance from adults, students can critically review the tools their peers can use in class. Students can learn critical thinking and group process, as well as examine the dominant cultural and social influences on schooling.


Deciding which teaching methods will be used. What better classroom allies do students need than teachers themselves? Learning about teaching methods, multiple intelligences, and classroom delivery can help students become more empathetic and understanding of the pressures and possibilities of school; it can also help them develop course-specific knowledge and rigorous knowledge application.ASSIGNMENTS: Deciding which classes teachers will teach. When linguistic learners are crammed into a room with a kinesthetic teacher, there is not a lot of room for compromise or balance. Students guidance in teacher assignments can help school leaders establish clear connections between teacher characteristics and student engagement. Students learn about their own needs and become more apt at identifying possible areas of growth and learning.


Selecting a new principal when there is a vacancy. School leadership requires an palpable commitment to constituency; for students, these overt gestures should go choosing prom night colors or class songs. With training in authentic student voice and meaningful student involvement, students can partner with adults to hire principals who are responsive and engaging. Lessons from this process include communication skills, teamwork, and structural procedures.


Consulting with principal when other vacancies are filled. By working as partners in school leadership students can support principals’ decision-making. This form of consultation encourages principal leadership while securing the responsiveness and deliberation staff hiring should have. Students can learn about decision-making processes, collaboration, and personnel management.


Deciding what is to be taught. Schools can become responsive to the needs and dreams of students through student-led course selection. This allows current technology, social issues, and student voice to become engaged in the classroom; in turn, students can learn about current events and develop critical thinking in an appropriate, applicable context.


Deciding which classes students will take. Educators are striving to find relevancy in the lives of young people today. Engaging students in class selection will encourage young people to become more committed learners and to see the connections between school and life. They can also learn about current issues, social pressure, and classroom management.


Deciding how time will be used during the day. In many schools the scheduling of the school day has become an enigmatic brew of “on days” and “off days,” colored and coded and confused to no ends. Student involvement will allow a more user-driven, simplified approach to meeting the needs of students. It will also encourage students to apply their math, communication, and assessment skills.


Deciding how the school building will be used. Students can help determine the necessary class sizes, refurbishing components, and redesign considerations by applying their experiences in the physical school plant. They can also become ambassadors for the school as a community resource. They can learn about individual and community needs, as well as building consensus among users.


Making discipline and classroom management policies. Students are often more harsh than adults in developing policies. This process can help educators learn about the valid concerns students have about discipline, and can unveil the oft secret feeling many young people feel schools perpetuate. This process can help teach them about making wise choices and accountability.


Deciding issues concerning extracurricular activities. Over-emphasis on athletic activities may be out of sync with student interests. Student involvement in this area can encourage new thinking about extracurricular activities and their role in the school environment. Students can also learn about budgeting, decision-making, and advocacy skills.

Budgets and Funds

Determining how available funds are to be spent. Understanding the intricacies of school funding can help students become informed consumers and partners in schools. Students can also develop creative solutions to school funding issues. The can learn applied mathematics, current issues in government spending, and social factors influencing school funding.

Professional Development

Planning activities for teacher in-service days. Student guidance can help teachers become more responsive to student needs, and ensure student empathy for teachers. This process can teach consensus and empathy, as well as lessons about scheduling, issues in schools, and funding.

While these proposals might sound radical, there is a growing awareness about their efficacy as teaching tools.


A recent commentary in Education Week shared the story of Kennebunk High School in Maine, where students “participate in virtually every decision in the school.” According to the article, this includes self-evaluation, a purposeful student council, and student representation on the local school board.

There are numerous stories about how student involvement in budgetary decisions have saved schools thousands of dollars. Students in Poughkeepsie, New York, participated in a class project to re-construct the school budget with consideration to recent budget cuts. Their creative solution could have saved their local district thousands of dollars, while keeping programs in line with student needs and expectations. In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, students have had a full-voting member of the school board for years. The McGill Plan is so-named after the student board member who proposed modifying the bus schedule during high school mid-term and final exams. This move saves the district $100,000 annually.

At Nova Project High School in Seattle, students have been involved in teacher hiring for more than 30 years. They have been responsible for numerous “coups,” including one where the principal’s choice wasn’t selected. According an article in the local newspaper, the principal argued passionately about her choice until a freshman turned to her and said: “Elaine, you’ve said enough now. Let’s get to the vote.”

Kentucky’s Possibilities

Back in Kentucky, Dr. Patmor’s study found that there is a hierarchy of interest among students and adults about student involvement in these decisions. He found that both groups strongly agreed that students should be involved in decision about extracurricular issues, which classes students take, how time is used during the day, and discipline and classroom management policies.

His study also found that there is strong agreement between students and adults about students lack of need to be involved in determining the number of employees in each job, planning professional development, and filling job vacancies.

This study, as well as these fourteen choices, provide interesting possibilities to school leaders interested in involving students. They can also provide great fodder for student energy for advocating student involvement.

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