UnifiEd Student Voice Team

Based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the UnifiEd Student Voice Team has been advocating for school transformation since 2014. Focused on improving K-12 learning in Hamilton County, students have worked with parents, school board members, educators and others to affect classrooms, create school programs, and drive policy change affecting thousands of learners.

Action and Outcomes

Student-created surveys were developed and administered by the Student Voice Team to over 450 Hamilton County high school students in the 2018-19 school year. These showed that students’ top priority for school improvement was in the area of mental health.

For instance, during the summer of 2019 the UnifiEd Student Voice Team researched how to implement best practices in mental health in Hamilton County Schools. At the beginning of the school year, the students’ advocacy resulted in the creation of a student support center in a local school.

In 2001, the Hamilton County School Board added a student member to their board. In 2016-17 and 2017-18, students from UnifiEd’s training programs Student Voice Team joined the board, ensuring student voice was empowered and capable of positively impacting district policy-making. Before then, the Student Voice Team worked with the school board attorney to update the system-wide bullying and harassment policy.

Approximately 30 high school students from across HCDE have been trained as organizers within their schools by UnifiEd staff.

Student Voice Team member at STEM School successfully advocated for the adoption of bylaws for its Student Support Senate to clarify the group’s role and bring awareness of its purpose to more students.

Students were a significant portion of respondents to the APEX equity survey, which identified the most urgent inequities in our schools and informed the work being undertaken by APEX Action Teams.

After the Student Voice Team successfully implemented a student Principal Advisory Council at Lookout Valley Middle and High School, students continued working on implementing Principal Advisory Councils in other Hamilton County High Schools, too.

Through the years, the UnifiEd Student Voice Team impacted individual schools and the district, making student voice a driving force for school improvement throughout Chattanooga and beyond.

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Profession Development for Students on School Boards and School Board Members

SoundOut teaches school board members how to engage students on school boards. Our training focuses on a variety of roles for students, as well as the skills and action school boards need to take to on-board students and sustain their meaningful involvement. This training has happened in Michigan, Washington, Vermont and Alberta. 

Download our flyer »

Contact us for information and call (360) 489-9680.

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2019-2020 School Workshops

SoundOut facilitates learning activities in K-12 schools across the United States and Canada! During the 2019-2020 school year, we’re focusing on…

STUDENT VOICE

  • How To Infuse Student Voice in Classroom Learning
  • Empowering Student Identity
  • Building School Leadership through Student Voice

STUDENT ENGAGEMENT

  • Curricular Strategies for Student Engagement
  • Transforming School Climate
  • Engaging Disengaged Students

MEANINGFUL STUDENT INVOLVEMENT

  • Students as Partners in School Improvement
  • Infusing Meaningful Student Involvement throughout Education

Download our 2019-2020 SoundOut School Workshops flyer!

Want to learn more? Call our office at (360) 489-9680 or contact us.

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Welcome to the Movement for Meaningful Student Involvement

This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of LeaderBoard from the Michigan Association of Student Councils.

Imagine all the excitement of a school board fostering effective school improvement using existing resources while catalyzing a generation of public school supporters while you’re at it. Sound too good to be true? Its not! Your district could be the next to join the growing national movement focused on engaging students on school boards!

For almost 20 years, I’ve been studying and advocating for new roles for students throughout the education system. Given their essential role, school boards have been a focus of my efforts as I’ve worked to lift student voice, build student engagement, and usher Meaningful Student Involvement for every student in every grade throughout every school, everywhere, all of the time. This article explores some of what I’ve found throughout the years, and what I see as the future of this movement.

In 2001, I was hired as the first-ever student engagement specialist in Washington state’s education agency. While facilitating a three-year action research project, I conducted more than 100 listening sessions with individual students, parents, educators and leaders from many, many rural, suburban and urban communities across my state. At the same time, I examined the international literature surrounding decision-making for students within the education system. My study took me from individual classrooms to school hallways, principals’ offices to district school boardrooms, state education agencies to state school boards. What I discovered nearly 20 years ago was a gaping hole of substantive opportunities for students to positively, powerfully and meaningfully affect the places where they spent the majority of their waking hours for more 13 years in a row.

Instead, I discovered that students were routinely minimized, frequently dismissed and alternately tokenized and lionized for who they were and what they could do. Student governments across the country would give young leaders opportunities to choose dance themes and school colors without ever showing them the budgets that drove their educations or the processes for selecting curriculum and assessing learning. When learners brought concerns to school leaders for consideration, it was routine to congratulate their initiative then forget them when students walked away. Brought on stage to show compliance and acceptance of adult-led initiatives in education, student leaders were pointed at as the stars of shows they hadn’t written, didn’t speak for, and couldn’t show disagreement with. In the early 2000s, many schools still followed the adage, “Kids are better seen than heard.” Additionally, student voice activities were frequently treated as the exclusive provenance of high achieving, highly involved learners who usually identified as white, middle- and upper class, heterosexual students. Largely a homogeneous group, they couldn’t be said to represent their lower income, under-achieving peers who may be students of color or identify as LGBTQ students.

Since 2001, there’s been an explosion of interest following increased research and practice of Meaningful Student Involvement, which I define as “the process of engaging students in every facet of the educational process for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community and democracy.” School boards can have a vital role in fostering Meaningful Student Involvement throughout their districts by supporting individual teachers learning about the approach, empowering building leaders to infuse the strategies, and enabling activities within their own sphere of action, including district offices and board activities. Engaging students as decision-makers is one way this happens, as well as intentionally creating roles for students as school researchers, education planners, classroom teachers, learning evaluators, and education advocates. Through SoundOut.org, I support K-12 schools, districts, agencies and associations nationwide through training, program development, evaluation and more to build these efforts.

What I’ve found is that on school boards nationwide, students are taking important roles to improve schools. For decades, there have been roles for students to inform and consult school boards. Many districts routinely invite students to inform board members on activities in their schools, and sometimes students are invited to share their concerns at board meetings. In addition to this, boards are creating permanent, regular positions for students to participate on school boards. Working with state laws, they are creating fully-empowered seats for students who are elected by their peers, supported by their teachers and principals, and trained to be sustained in their positions. Other district boards are also creating long-term policies and advocating with state legislatures to expand student roles. Instead of creating a single position for students, some districts have made multiple seats for learners—up to half the board—while partnering students with adult members to encourage mutual mentoring.

For instance, in Maryland students serve on every district board of education in the state. Students host multiple town hall forums for their peers, parents and community members, as well as over a dozen student advocacy groups throughout the state’s the school system. Student members are trained at the local level with support from a statewide organization. A recent report said district officials believe “giving students a larger say in what happens to them while they are at school has prompted students to take a larger interest in their education and to tackle issues with maturity and professionalism.”

That means that in addition to joining school boards, students across the U.S. are participating in district grant activities, including choosing grantees, facilitating training for educators and others, and evaluating grant performance in local schools. In district offices nationwide, students are researching and evaluating school policies, developing powerful campaigns to transform school culture, and building community coalitions to transform learning, teaching and leadership. Their involved in district budgeting, facilitating new building design and siting, advocating for healthy and nutritious school foods, and helping establish safe and supportive learning environments for all students, regardless of how they identify or perform in classrooms. They are doing all of this with encouragement, support and empowerment by school boards.

Another example comes from Massachusetts. The Boston Student Advisory Council, or BSAC, has partnered with the Boston Public Schools school committee (school board) with a variety of policies and activities. Students on BSAC have addressed a wide range of issues, including student rights and responsibilities, school discipline and climate, transportation, and the district budget. BSAC is credited with improving district policy-making, school climate, and student-teacher relationships.

In my research, I’ve found that at least 19 states currently have student representatives on their state school boards; at least 25 allow students to be involved on district school boards. They include Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois; they do not include Ohio and Indiana. Only two states currently having voting roles for students on the state school board; California and Maryland. Those two states have seemingly done more to foster local school board membership than any others nationwide, too.

Building a movement for Meaningful Student Involvement in district decision-making will require several steps. A great starting point is my 2017 tome called Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook. In this 374-page book, I share examples, tips, research and more about empowered student voice, including practical, purposeful ways to take action.

Another essential step for every board member is to read the Michigan Association for School Boards Students on Boards Toolkit, which includes tips and sample policies. My website at http://www.soundout.org provides dozens of free tools, several free publications, and many articles and examples.

All of these highlight the ways Meaningful Student Involvement is happening, as well as the actions and effects of student voice and student engagement in schools. After you’ve reviewed those resources, I suggest districts create a districtwide plan for Meaningful Student Involvement highlighting roles for students on boards; train board members, educators, principals, parents and others on Meaningful Student Involvement, and then; implement and evaluate plans routinely, fostering the cycle of engagement throughout activities and building on every action taken to support even more action in the future.

Engaging students on school boards is packed with benefits for learners, board members, and schools overall. Research has shown board members can feel more effective through these positions by connecting directly with students, developing camaraderie with their peers, and sustaining regular connections with what’s happening in individual schools and classrooms districtwide. Experience has shown that involving students in decision-making has been shown to save time, energy, and money in education, too, benefiting board members’ effectiveness and outcomes. As society evolves, students are on boards can help individual school building support the ethical imperative facing educators today. That means supporting democracy, civic engagement and culture building throughout local neighborhoods and communities. Finally, positioning students on boards benefits both the students who are involved as well as others, too. Student members build skills, gain knowledge and take action every time they do board-related work; in turn, younger and older students can see themselves, hear their voices and feel their aspirations reflected in board decision-making. There are literally countless benefits.

After working with school districts in more than 30 states across the country, I believe the many districts are moving to the forefront of American schools as they expand this movement. Fostering strategic, substantial and effective Meaningful Student Involvement in districts statewide will mean addressing what I call the “4 Ps” of school administration: policies, personnel, procedures and programs. This means new and refined policies should to be created to support empowered roles for students on school boards statewide; personnel will have to be supported as their champion and sustain students on school boards; procedures can be created to engage, enliven and sustain student and adults as they embark in this work as partners; and programs could be developed to train, substantiate, maintain, expand and evaluate students on school boards.

All of this could amount to creating one of the most powerful, most impacting and most substantial agendas for Meaningful Student Involvement in the United States. In turn, it could transform schools across the country and benefit every learner in every school immediately, and well into the future. Can you truly afford to wait any further?

Old vs. New School Boards

Old ways for school boards to see students:

  • Students as passive recipients of adult-driven schools
  • Students as data points
  • Students as unfinished products until graduation
  • Students as incapable of contributing to the greater good
  • Students as Dorothy, and boards as the Wizard

New ways for school boards to see students:

  • Students as active partners of schools led by students and adults together
  • Students as members of learning communities, with teachers, parents, building leaders, board members and others
  • Students as whole people with significant opinions at any age
  • Students as essential members of schools and the larger communities
  • Every student as a co-creator, co-leader and co-learner throughout the education system

This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of LeaderBoard from the Michigan Association of Student Councils.

Recommended citation: Fletcher, A. (Winter 2019) “Welcome to the Movement for Meaningful Student Involvement,” LeaderBoard 5(1) pp 18-21.

Download the original version »

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SoundOut Teams

A SoundOut Student Voice Team gathers regularly in a school or across a district to support, build and sustain student voice throughout education. Schools can start SoundOut Teams on their own.

Tip Sheet

Here is a tip sheet showing hot to support SoundOut Student Voice Teams. Download it here »

How To Support SoundOut Student Voice Teams

SoundOut offers training and other services to support teams. For more information contact us »

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Training about Students on School Boards

This is the SoundOut Students On School Boards Toolkit by Adam Fletcher. It includes research, examples and more. SoundOut offers professional development and training! For more information contact us.

SoundOut offers ONLINE training about students on school boards, including professional development for adults and student workshops.

In a climate where more attention is being paid to student voice in the classroom, many are asking how school boards might approach incorporating students into their work in a way that goes beyond inviting someone to report on Homecoming festivities.

Bring SoundOut to your school district or conference for a workshop dedicated to understanding the power of student voice and the possibilities of student representation on the board of education. Adam Fletcher, a leading expert on student voice and representation, explores the benefits, challenges and opportunities for engaging students in the work of boards in a deep and meaningful way.

Outcomes

In our sessions about students on school boards, participants…

  • Learn what student voice is, what it does, who it is for and how it happens;
  • Explore roles for students on school boards, including activities, topics and outcomes that are appropriate for them;
  • Understand how students are engaged on boards, including recruitment, training, maintaining and evaluating their roles, and;
  • More!

For more information including fees and scheduling, contact SoundOut today!

Students on School Boards Toolkit

Students on School Boards in Canada

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Student Voice in Madison Metropolitan School District

There are communities in the United States where young people are working with adults to lift up the voices of students and infuse meaningful student involvement throughout education. In November 2018, SoundOut had a chance to visit Madison, Wisconsin, where they are doing exactly that.

SoundOut staff worked with at with more 150 middle and high school students, classroom teachers, district administrators, and community supporters. We explored a lot of dynamics related to meaningful student involvement: who is involved, how they are involved, where they are involved, when they are involved, and why they are involved. We named new reasons to engage more students, everywhere, all of the time, and we discussed ways that it worked before for engaging students in meaningful ways.

SoundOut led several workshops, including one with students at Capital High School. These are students involved in alternative learning programs, and many are deeply involved in meaningful ways throughout their school. Their principal is a staunch supporter of student voice, and the teachers who are working with students are really dedicated. In this workshop, SoundOut and district staff learned from students about their visions for the future of their school, and the education system in general. We explored some of the roadblocks they faced in their work, and we began unpacking new possibilities for things they could do around the school. It was very powerful.

Sitting with educators, administrators and several students on a new district wide student voice group, SoundOut learned about powerful racial equity work happening in the district. There were questions regarding the effect of general use voice work and it’s impact on work being done to promote African-American youth voice particularly. Does one outweigh the other?

SoundOut also worked directly with district staff focused on youth engagement. We facilitated a community-wide learning opportunity for almost 100 students and adults to learn about meaningful student involvement. During the session, there were a lot of collaborative activities, brainstorming sessions, and planning opportunities for individual schools to begin to take student voice to heart in their school improvement planning and regular activities. We were fascinated to discover all of the ways that student voice is already at work in Madison, and to help plant the seeds for more work to be done.

“Thank you again for a wonderful two days, rich with enthusiasm, growth, and thought-provoking conversations!”

– Hannah Nerenhausen, Ed.M., Family, Youth & Community Engagement Coordinator, Madison Metropolitan School District

It’s been a fascinating 20 years of doing this work, and Madison is helping SoundOut to begin to envision the future that’s ahead as meaningful student involvement continues to grow across the United States and around the world.

Want to learn more?

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SoundOut Schools

These are K-12 schools, districts, state agencies and education nonprofits that have worked directly with SoundOut.


K-12 Schools

These are some of the K-12 schools SoundOut has worked with since 2002.

Alberta

  1. Caroline High School, Caroline, Alberta, Canada
  2. Holy Redeemer Catholic High School
  3. St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Academy
  4. École St. Joseph School
  5. St. Mary of the Lake Catholic School
  6. École St. Mary School
  7. Vanier Community Catholic School

California

  1. Madrone High School, San Rafael, California (
  2. San Rafael High School, San Rafael, California
  3. Terra Linda High School, San Rafael, California
  4. Ahwanhee Middle School, California
  5. Alpha Tech Middle School, California
  6. Boron Jr./Sr. High School, California
  7. Brock Union Elementary School, California
  8. Christa McAuliffe Middle School, California
  9. Coalinga Middle School, California
  10. Coarsegold Elemtary School, California
  11. Colony Oak Elementary School, California
  12. Creekside Middle School, California
  13. Delta Island Elementary School, California
  14. Dunlap Elementary School, California
  15. Edison Computech, California
  16. El Capitan Middle School, California
  17. El Monte Jr. High School, California
  18. El Tejon School, California
  19. Foothill Farms Junior High School, California
  20. General Shafler Elementary School, California
  21. Haven Drive Middle School, California
  22. Henderson Community Day School, California
  23. Henderson Community Day School, California
  24. Island Elementary School, California
  25. Jack C. Desmond Middle School, California
  26. Jonas Salk Middle School, California
  27. Kastner Intermediate School, California
  28. Keyes Charter School, California
  29. Lake Don Pedro Elementary School, California
  30. Lakeside Elementary School, California
  31. Lee Middle School, California
  32. Liberty Middle School, California
  33. Lincoln Junior High School, California
  34. Livingston Middle School, California
  35. Raymond-Knowles Elementary School, California
  36. Reef Sunset Middle School, California
  37. Richland Junior High School, California
  38. Sherman Thomas Charter School, California
  39. Sonora Elementary School, California
  40. Summerville Elementary School, California
  41. Teel Middle School, California
  42. Thomas Jefferson Middle School, California
  43. Washington Intermediate School, California
  44. Wawona Middle School, California
  45. Earle E. Williams Middle School, California

Florida

  1. Cypress Creek Elementary School, Tampa, Florida
  2. Miami Senior High School, Miami, Florida
  3. Edison Senior High School, Miami, Florida
  4. Booker T. Washington Senior High School, Miami, Florida

Colorado

  1. Pinnacle Charter School, Denver, Colorado

Massachusetts

 

  1. Community Academy of Science and Health, Boston, Massachusetts
  2. Engineering School, Boston, Massachusetts
  3. Monument High School, Boston, Massachusetts
  4. Social Justice Academy, Boston, Massachusetts

New York

  1. International School for Liberal Arts, Bronx, NYC, New York
  2. Lynch Middle School, Amsterdam, New York
  3. Monroe High School, Rochester, New York

Vermont

  1. Harwood High School, Moretown, Vermont
  2. Burlington High School, Burlington, Vermont
  3. Cabot High School, Cabot, Vermont
  4. Craftsbury High School, Craftsbury, Vermont
  5. Hazen Union High School, Hardwick, Vermont
  6. Mill River High School, Clarendon, Vermont
  7. People’s Academy, Morristown, Vermont
  8. Twinfield Union High School, Marshfield, Vermont

Washington

  1. Ridgeview Elementary School, Yakima, Washington
  2. Roosevelt High School, Seattle, Washington
  3. Secondary Academy for Success, Bothell, Washington
  4. Spanaway Elementary School, Spanaway, Washington
  5. Vashon Island Student Link Alternative School, Vashon, Washington
  6. White River High School, Buckley, Washington
  7. Wishkah Valley High School, Wishkah, Washington
  8. Black Hills High School, Tumwater, Washington
  9. Tacoma School of the Arts, Tacoma, Washington
  10. Odyssey — The Essential School at the Tyee Educational Complex, Seatac, Washington
  11. Dayton High School, Dayton, Washington
  12. Health Sciences and Human Services High School, Seatac, Washington
  13. Nathan Hale High School, Seattle, Washington
  14. Pateros High School, Pateros, Washington
  15. Toppenish High School, Toppenish, Washington
  16. South Ridge High School, Washington
  17. Omak High School, Omak, Washington
  18. Bethel School District, Spanaway, Washington
  19. Sumner School District, Sumner, Washington
  20. Cleveland High School, Seattle, Washington
  21. Colfax High School, Colfax, Washington
  22. Evergreen High School, Vancouver, Washington
  23. Franklin High School, Seattle, Washington
  24. Friday Harbor High School, Friday Harbor, Washington
  25. Harbor High School, Aberdeen, Washington
  26. Illahee Middle School, Federal Way, Washington
  27. Inchelium Middle and Senior High School, Inchelium, Washington
  28. Langley Middle School, Langley, Washington
  29. Lewis and Clark High School, Spokane, Washington
  30. Lewis and Clark Middle School, Yakima, Washington

 

School Districts, Regional Support Agencies, and State Education Agencies

These are some of the districts and government agencies SoundOut has partnered with since 2002.

  • Alberta Ministry of Education Student Engagement Office, Edmonton, Alberta
  • Living Waters Catholic Schools, Whitecourt, Alberta
  • Inchelium School District GearUP, Inchelium, Washington
  • Greater Amsterdam School District, Amsterdam, New York
  • Green River Educational Cooperative Kid Friendly Initiative, Kentucky
  • San Rafael School District, Marin, California
  • Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative Kid Friendly Initiative, Kentucky
  • Boston Public Schools Student Engagement Advisory Council, Boston, Massachusetts
  • New York State Student Support Services Center, LeRoy, New York
  • Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES, New Hartford, New York
  • Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Counties BOCES Mid-State Student Support Services Center, Syracuse, New York
  • Oswego County BOCES, Mexico, New York
  • Genesee Valley BOCES Midwest Student Support Services Center, LeRoy, New York
  • Wayne Finger Lake BOCES, Newark, New York
  • Capital Region BOCES Eastern Region Student Support Services Center, Albany, New York
  • Ulster County BOCES New York Center for Student Safety, New Paltz, New York
  • Rochester City Schools, Rochester, New York
  • Hillsborough County Public Schools, Florida
  • Greater Amsterdam School District, Amsterdam, New York
  • New York State Education Department, Albany, New York
  • Puget Sound Educational Service District, Renton, Washington
  • Seattle Public Schools Office of Equity and Race Relations, Seattle, Washington
  • Seattle Public Schools Service Learning Seattle, Seattle, Washington
  • Seattle Public Schools Small Learning Environments Conference, Seattle, Washington
  • Seattle Public Schools Youth Engagement Zone, Seattle, Washington
  • Small Schools Project, Seattle, Washington
  • Yakima Public Schools, Yakima, Washington
  • Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board GearUP Program, Olympia, Washington
  • Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Olympia, Washington
  • Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction Learn and Serve America Program, Olympia, Washington
  • Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction School Improvement Program, Olympia, Washington
  • Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction Title V and Innovative Programs, Olympia, Washington
  • State of Arizona Department of Education Coordinated School Health, Tucson, Arizona

Support Organizations

These are some of the nonprofit organizations SoundOut has partnered with since 2002.

  • Center for Studies and Research in Education, Culture and Community Action (CENPEC), São Paulo, Brazil
  • Students Taking Charge, Skokie, Illinois
  • Suncoast EarthForce, Tampa, Florida
  • United States Department of Education, Washington, DC
  • University of Indianapolis Center for Excellence in Leadership of Learning, Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Vermont Principal’s Association, Montpelier, Vermont
  • Vermont State Department of Education HIV/AIDs Program, Montpelier, Vermont
  • Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together (YATST), Hardwick, Vermont
  • Youth On Board/YouthBuild USA, Sommerville, Massachusetts
  • Washington State University Center for Bridging the Digital Divide, Pullman, Washington
  • Washington State Action For Healthy Kids, Skokie, Illinois
  • University of Washington College of Education, Seattle, Washington
  • University of Washington GEAR UP Program, Seattle, Washington
  • Academy for Educational Development, New York, New York
  • Carnegie Corporation, New York, New York
  • Action For Healthy Kids, Skokie, Illinois
  • Allegheny Partners for Out of School Time (APOST) Allegheny County United Way, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Arizona Dairy Council Fuel Up To Play 60, Tucson, Arizona
  • Catalyst Miami/Human Services Coalition of Miami-Dade County, Miami, Florida
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Adolescent and School Health, Atlanta, Georgia
  • Community Schools Collaborative, Burien, Washington
  • Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education, New York, New York
  • College Success Foundation, Issaquah, Washington
  • Communities for Learning, Floral Park, New York
  • Connect Magazine, Sydney, Australia
  • Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, Houston, Texas
  • EarthForce, Denver, Colorado
  • Educational School District 123 21st Century Learning Centers, Pasco, Washington
  • Educational Service District 113, Tumwater, Washington
  • Educational Service District 112, Vancouver, Washington
  • Evergreen Public Schools, Vancouver, Washington
  • Generation YES, Olympia, Washington
  • Grantmaker’s Forum on Education, Washington, DC
  • Harvard University Graduate School on Education, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Harwood Union School District, Moretown, Vermont
  • Institute for Democratic Education in America, Portland, Oregon
  • Learner-Centred Initiatives, Inc., Floral Park, New York
  • Living Waters School District, Whitecourt, Alberta
  • Marin County Department of Education, San Raphael, California
  • National PTA, Chicago, Illinois
  • Santa Barbara County Service Learning Initiative, Santa Barbara, California
  • Schenectady Public Schools, Schenectady, New York
  • Schools Out Washington, Seattle, Washington
  • ASCD Whole Child Initiative, Washington, DC
  • Road Map Project, Seattle, Washington
  • National School Board Association, Alexandria, VA
  • Alberta School Boards Association, Edmonton, Alberta
  • Washington State School Directors Association, Olympia, Washington

 

 


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Transforming Student Voice into Meaningful Student Involvement

Back in 2000, I was working as the first-ever student engagement specialist at the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In the course of my work, I conducted a scan of activities across the United States, Canada and around the world through which students were improving schools. I found a lot of terms used frequently and interchangeably, like student empowerment and student leadership. I also found a few terms that weren’t talked about much that I wanted to explore.

One of those terms was student voice. Generally used as a synonym for student actions to change school or in curriculum as students sharing their experiences in class, this term fascinated me. Packed with potential, I read through the scant amounts of studies, articles and other literature available then and decided that the term was a cloak of sorts: Instead of being authentic, genuine or substantial, student voice was often slapped on any information adults were seeking and students were replying to.

I wanted to differentiate that types of student involvement. Talking with educators and students around Washington state, I found the phrase Meaningful Student Involvement to be useful, and ran with it.

Different Issues

Adam Fletcher works with student leaders who are improving their schools in Arizona.
Adam Fletcher works with student leaders who are improving their schools in Arizona.

Student voice is any expression of any student, anywhere, at any time related to schools, learning and education. Meaningful Student Involvement is the process of engaging students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community, and democracy.

Student voice…

  • Doesn’t necessarily change education
  • Doesn’t require schools to change
  • Doesn’t require adults to change
  • Doesn’t require students to change

Meaningful Student Involvement…

  • Is systemwide action for school improvement
  • Fosters deep student/adult commitment
  • Requires whole school transformation
  • Supports deep learning by students and adults
  • Expands possibilities for students and adults
Students changing schools - A comparison of student voice and meaningful student involvement
This is a comparison of student voice and meaningful student involvement from Fletcher, A. (2017) Student Voice Revolution.

Surely these two areas overlap, and it can be said that student voice is a foundation of Meaningful Student Involvement. However, on its own, student voice doesn’t not require, obligate or otherwise compel schools to be difference. The research-driven Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement do require substance, purpose and outcomes beyond appearances.

Elements to transformation

My work with more than 300+ K-12 schools in dozens of districts across the United States and around the world has led me to understand there are certain elements to transforming student voice into Meaningful Student Involvement. People in any role can build a team to move these elements into place. Here are what they look like.

These are SoundOut's elements of transforming student voice to meaningful student involvement.
  1. Assess. Look closely at what is currently happening in your location, whether a school, district or otherwise. Examine it for whether you’re listening to student voice, or fostering Meaningful Student Involvement, using our tools.
  2. Plan. Through deliberation, strategic action planning can transform schools. Overarching objectives, SMART goals, responsible partners and accountable student/adult partnerships have to be intact throughout. SoundOut’s planning tools allow educators and students to partner together while meeting real needs throughout their schools, districts and beyond.
  3. Educate. A lot of people assume that they will intuitively and inherently understand Meaningful Student Involvement, and that’s simply not true. You can’t make up the process; there is research that shows there are characteristics to adhere to.
  4. Systematize. Don’t try the scatterplot approach; instead, use the education system to structurally transform the roles of students throughout schools. Examine decision-making critically and purposeful challenge apathy.
  5. Support. Fostering Meaningful Student Involvement isn’t a one-time activity. Instead, it must be continuously sought-out, built, deconstructed, rebuilt and examined once more. Support must happen throughout every place Meaningful Student Involvement is intended to happen. There must be deliberately placed champions, succinctly enacted strategic plans, committed cultural and structural scaffolding, and authentic evaluations throughout.
  6. Celebrate. As students move closer to partnership with educators and further from being the consumers of schools, its essential to move their values to the forefront. One of these is celebration, which can allow adults in schools to lift up success, challenge being overwhelmed and support the ongoing evolution of schools. It can also let student creativity, enthusiasm and capacity for joy to come to the forefront, rescuing adults from our own cynicism.

Moving from here to there

Are you a K-12 school teacher who is interested in shifting their perspective from student voice to Meaningful Student Involvement? Maybe you’re a school leader, principal or headmaster who wants to engage students as partners in formal school improvement processes. Perhaps you work in a state or provincial education agency, or a local or regional school district. Are you a K-12 student who is ready for something more?

Steps to Transform Student Voice to Meaningful Student Involvement

  1. Teach Students About Education. Make learning transparent to students by teaching them what they’re learning, how to learn it, where learning happens, and why they are learning.
  2. Open the Doors to the System. Create education systemwide opportunities for students to have regular, sustained input into the decisions that affect them. This includes curriculum, teaching approaches, school climate, assessment, behavior expectations, building leadership, district leadership, state policymaking, and more.
  3. Foster Sustainability for ALL Students. Listening to students shouldn’t be a one-time experience in a students’ school career. Instead, these should be sustained experiences that are ongoing from kindergarten through graduation and beyond. Students should know what they’re sharing too, and be aware of how to improve and increase their effective involvement throughout the education system.

If you’re interested in learning other steps to transforming student voice, see our article about the Characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement »

After helping launch hundreds of Meaningful Student Involvement projects, these are the elements that have come clear to me as keys for transformation. What do you think matters most? I’d love to read your feedback in the comments below – please share!

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Student Voice in California

Map of Student Voice in California by SoundOut

Recently, I spoke with a friend and colleague in California about student voice in her state. Sharing the many, many examples on the top of my head of what is happening in the state, I am reminded of the positive, powerful potential of students who are making change in their schools everywhere. California has experienced that transformation for decades now, and I want to highlight some of what’s happened there.

Finally, for three years from 2012 to 2014, the National Student Power Convergence drew together high school and college student organizers across the country in Oakland. Dream Defenders, Moral Monday arrestees, high schoolers resisting school closings and police brutality, statewide organizers from Ohio, New York, California and beyond came together to trade tactics and experiences, elevate disenfranchised voices, link struggles from different regions to build something bigger.

Students in Oakland created a high school. Alternatives in Action High School was founded in 2001 when students worked with adults to design, write, and submit a petition for a charter school to the Alameda Unified School District Board of Trustees. After a unanimous vote of approval, the school opened. The school’s Charter was subsequently renewed again by unanimous vote of the Alameda Unified School Board in 2006 and 2011.

SoundOut has worked in several schools throughout California, too. The San Rafael City Schools has hosted the SoundOut Summit, a school improvement opportunity designed to empower students to transform the learning, teaching and leadership at schools in their district. We partnered with a national nonprofit called Generation YES to provide Powerful Student Leader training at 50 middle schools in the Central Valley, and we provided technical assistance to Oakland Public Schools to build their Meaningful Student Engagement program.

There is a lot more history in California, including student voice activism and Meaningful Student Involvement in K-12 schools going back to the 1920s and 30s. However, I’ll cover that in separate article. For now, please share anything you know about in California in the comments section, and share this article with your networks!

Statewide Student Voice

There are student voice programs, activities and organizations working across the entire state of California. They’ve had powerful successes, made lasting change, and created foundations for education transformation that will be felt for generations.

In June 2018, California Governor Edmund Brown signed the 2018-2019 California state budget. That budget includes $28.3 million for the Local Control Funding Formula, which supports student voice in district planning statewide. Lobbied for heavily by students, its a direct victory for student voice across the state. School districts are now required to engage student voice in budgeting. This effort started in 2014 when the Californians for Justice campaign led a statewide student advocacy movement to make room for student voice in local funding decisions through the Local Control Funding Formula. Their influence was felt in the victory for student voice that happened in June 2018. Succeeding, the campaign succeeded in making room for student voice in every district statewide. The campaign also promoted understanding about student voice, student rights and more.

More than a decade ago, I found research about students on school boards in California from the 1970s. Turns out students have been voting on the California State School Board for more than thirty years, and they’ve been members of California district school boards for more than 50 years. The California Association of Student Councils has been rallying student voice and driving Meaningful Student Involvement in the California Legislature for more than a decade. They also train students about education and school reform, and constantly advocate for student involvement in state-level decision-making. They operate several programs for the state’s education system, including theStudent Advisory Board on Education (SABE) and Student Advisory Board on Legislation in Education (SABLE).

Local Student Voice

There are local-level student voice organizations, campaigns and activities transforming schools throughout California. Illustrating the meaningful involvement of students throughout public education, these entities have taken student voice to new heights in terms of sustainability, substance and outcomes. Some of these programs include:

  • APYPAL, or Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy & Leadership, which has facilitated leadership development of more than 450 youth leaders and has engaged over 4,500 young people in grassroots education campaigns.
  • Kids First Oakland, which has a youth leadership program called Representing Educated Active Leaders Having A Righteous Dream, or REAL HARD. For more than a decade, students in REAL HARD have focused on transforming school culture with students as culture drivers who implement shared values and create respectful learning spaces.
  • SC-YEA, or South Central Youth Empowered through Action in Los Angeles. They are developing the next generation of activists capable of leading their peers and impacting public policy in their schools and community. By hosting chapters on high school campuses across South LA, SCYEA aims to amplify the voices of students in education decision-making. They launched a campaign to hold schools accountable for A-G course requirements, and also recently pressured the local school district to repair and build new schools with a $2.4 billion school bond, and to add $153 million dollars for additional school repairs previously overlooked in their community.
  • Youth Together works throughout the Bay Area to empower student voice in broad ways that impact students in schools everyday. One of their most recent projects was a Listening Campaign led by students to highlight issues students face in schools right now, and to develop student-led solutions to those issues.
  • Coleman Advocates organizes low-income high school students of color in San Francisco through a program called Youth Making A Change. Since 1991, thousands of students have led advocacy efforts to stand for and win innovative programs for San Francisco’s high schools and students. Their successes include Wellness Centers and SF Youth Vote, as well as landmark policies to close the racial achievement gap.

Other organizations that engage students in actively transforming K-12 schools include Innercity Struggle in LA and the Alliance for Education Justice, which works statewide. There are also student-driven school transformation activities being led by California Youth Connection; Sacramento ACT; RYSE Center (Richmond); People Acting in Community Together (San Jose); Families in Schools (Los Angeles), and; Khmer Girls in Action (Long Beach).

More Student Voice

There are powerful activities happening across the entire state, some helping every student in every community; others focusing on Black, Brown, Latinx, and Asian Pacific Islanders; while others help GBLTQQ students and others, too.

One of the most systemic efforts happening in California today is in the Oakland Public Schools, where they have had a number of efforts focused on what they call “Meaningful Student Engagement” on and off for more than a decade. Some of their programs include Meaningful Student Engagement Leadership Teacher Community of Practice, where Leadership class teachers support each other in fostering the conditions for students to be meaningfully engaged in shaping school culture and climate; an All City Council (ACC) Governing Board, which seeks to amplify student voice by serving as a bridge between adult decision makers and the student body, and; Youth Voice with Continuous Improvement, through which the district provides technical assistance with the formation and democratic election of School Governance Teams. They support middle and high school students to participate on School Site Councils and the District-Wide LCAP Student Advisory, too.

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