Articles Districts

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.

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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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School Boards

Guide to Students on Canadian School Boards

Canadian Student Voice Directory from SoundOut.
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.
  • Is it legal for students to be represented on school boards in Canada?
  • Do Canadian school boards always have student voice in mind?
  • How many students represent student voice in Canada?

For the first time, one publication is answering those questions. The SoundOut Guide to Students on Canadian School Boards is the first nationwide summary of this movement, and its now available FREE from SoundOut!

Students on School Boards Toolkit

Students on School Boards in Canada

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1972 Omaha North High School Student Assembly

North High School in Omaha, Nebraska, is my alma mater. Coincidentally, they made strides in student voice advocacy long before I ever got there. Here’s what I have uncovered.

Starting in the late 1960s, students at North High School in Omaha, Nebraska, struggled to promote student voice in school. By the time I was attending the school in the late 1980s and early 90s, there was none of that movement left. But it 1972, student advocates within the school leveraged a conversation with the principal into a plan for building-wide student representation in serious school issues, including budgeting, hiring and firing, curriculum and more.

The students’ plan entailed creating new functions for the extant student council in school, and ensuring the student council more effectively reflected the student population.

While the attached article sounds optimistic, there’s little evidence this plan was either implemented, or if it was, whether it was sustained for very long. However, this does sound a positive note for history, and implies the future is only getting better! Imagine how strong the student voice movement was in 1972 that an urban high school in Omaha, Nebraska was compelled to engage student advocates in serious problem-solving.


1972 Omaha student voice
This 1972 article from the Omaha World-Herald is entitled, “Student voice in the schools grows a little.”


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São Paulo Students Occupy Schools

Student activists occupy a school in São Paulo, Brazil
Student activists protest government school reforms excluding their voices in São Paulo, Brazil.


SoundOut is excited to share this piece by Lilian L’Abbate Kelian and Iara Haasz about recent student-led activism in São Paulo, Brazil!


Occupy Schools: Students in São Paulo Demanding A Role In Improving Education

Written by Iara Haasz and Lilian L’Abbate Kelian, November 19, 2015 (São Paulo, Brazil) — On November 10, 2015, public school students in São Paulo State started a movement to occupy their schools when the São Paulo government began forcing an agenda to restructure of schools that didn’t include students as partners.


The proposal would affect 311,000 students and their families; and 74,000 teachers in 1,464 schools. It was announced by the State’s Educational Administration in September. According to São Paulo State Secretary of Education Herman Voorwald, the proposal is based on a number of studies and statistical data with the goal of improving the quality of education. The main idea is to reduce the complexity of school administration by separating schools into three levels: “Ensino Fundamental I” (ages 6 to 10), “Ensino Fundamental II” (ages 11 to 14) and “Ensino Medio” (ages 15 to 17).


Education experts agree on the idea that education system restructuring is needed, but also agree that the government proposal must be widely discussed. However, neither the proposal or the studies supporting it were made public.


Starting on October 6th, students in São Paulo have been demonstrating in order to pressure the São Paulo educational administration into making the proposal’s details public. Protests intensified starting October 25th, when the educational administration announced the closure of 94 schools. The fate of these schools is unknown.


On November 10th student activists occupied 2 schools, Fernão Dias Public School and Diadema Public School. The following day the educational administration announced their willingness to negotiate with student activists. However, negotiations failed when students didn’t accept the requirement that they leave the schools and go to the state administration building. Instead, they sought for government representatives to come to the schools to negotiate. Shortly afterwards, the government ordered military police to vacate the Fernão Dias Public School. However, a judicial order prevented that the police entered the school. According to the judge, the student activists’ occupation is a public policy issue and there is no threat that justifies police action.


Since then the student activists’ movement has grown, with 70 schools currently occupied. Unfortunately, police violence towards the students is happening, especially in the outskirts of São Paulo. The student activists have secured the support of parents, educators, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists.



November 11, 2015 (Sã0 Paulo, Brazil) The following is a public statement written by student activists who are occupying Fernão Dias Paes School:
We started to organize after the government’s announcement of the restructuring and closing of schools. Since the 6th of October, we are organizing demonstrations seeking dialogue about the way the process was being done. After not being heard by any instance, we saw in the idea of occupying a way to enhance the voice of the students.


If we are the ones being restructured we must take part in this process. We, students, excluded from the restructuring process will be affected by spending cuts resulting from these measures. All participants in this occupation are high school students. We entered yesterday, November 10th, in the morning and prevented the entrance of teachers and coordinators. We held an assembly with only students and decided to occupy the school.


Our struggle is the struggle of all students. We will not accept any proposal that does not encompass all state schools affected. In the dialogue with the government there was no negotiation. During the occupation there was no initiative from the government to negotiate our claims. Remediation only confirms that public education today trains cheap labor. Not to oppose this is to accept the precarization of public education.
Occupying schools is another strategy to struggle for education. This occupation remains only with the solidarity of collaborators. To continue the struggle we need to come together and occupy the schools and thus achieve our goal: Prevent the Restructuring.
Against the restructuring, lets occupy the schools! For better education!



The government came hot and I’m already boiling

The government came hot and I’m already boiling

You want to defy us? I don’t understand

Against students? You gonna lose F

ernão, school for struggle Diadema, school for struggle

Ana Rosa, school for struggle

Prepare your self, if you close, we’ll occupy!

Watch a video of this update at


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In the following video, a student activist shares how the regional director of education called some parents to speak with her at the government education office. After elaborating on why parents do not represent the student movement, she says parents are aware of that and won’t be complicit in the government’s attempts to derail the student activists. After being told that the regional director agreed to meet with the students at the school at 7:30am the next day, the student activists woke early to prepare. However, the regional director of education didn’t show, instead calling the parents to her office instead of coming to the school. The student says, “if she wants to talk to us, tell her to come here to the school and we will talk with her.” You can watch the video at


Despite mainstream media’s reports to the contrary, student activists occupying the Fernão Dias Public School take care of their school. They prepare the meals, organize the cleaning and keep the school in order. In mainstream media, the student activists are being called vandals. You can learn more at


You can find a map of the Occupied Schools where student activists are protesting against the government-ordered education restructuring in São Paulo at


There are ongoing updates on a Facebook page called O Mal Educado at


There is a joke pictures about the overcrowded classrooms at


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The Tree School

The Tree School is one of the most dynamic, engaging educational projects SoundOut has ever been introduced to. Located in the southern part of Bahia state in Brazil, it moves beyond the constructs and definitions of normal schools, including student voice and student engagement, and fully embodies every aspect of Meaningful Student Involvement.


The first The Tree School was formed in Southern Bahia with thinkers, artists, and activists from the quilombola movement, the Landless Workers’ Movement and Palestinian refugees. They wanted to activate community-based discussions around exile, right of return, identity construction and subjectivity building. They were also concerned with reflecting and understanding the role of education as a liberating and democratizing tool.

The Tree School is first and foremost a gathering place of people around a tree perceived as a living being. The tree, with its characteristics and history, is the device that creates a physical and metaphorical common territory where ideas and actions can emerge through critical, free and independent discussion among participants.

All students choose to come to The Tree School on their own – it is a fully consensual school. It is based on non-hierarchical relationships between adults, children and youth. With everyone co-learning, co-teaching, and co-leading the entire school all of the time, the Tree School directly addresses social oppression, cultural alientation, student segregation and more.

SoundOut visited The Tree School’s exhibition as part of the 31st Bienal of São Paulo. It was an inspiration and celebration of the power of democracy, community and education serving powerful, purposeful goals for everyone involved, and beyond.


Founding Organizations

A Brazilian art collective called Contrafilé partnered with Campus in Camps, an experimental educational platform based in Dheisheh refugee camp, Palestine. Focused on decolonizing knowledge, they wanted to foster trans-generational learning environments that are not confined within the traditional walls of academia. Working across across different forms of knowledge, they also want to integrate aspects of life and dialogue with the larger community.


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  • The Tree School, a spectacular .pdf book about the experience of people directly involved in The Tree School. Inspiring, honest and authentic, this publication contextualizes Meaningful Student Involvement in a larger project of democracy-building through community and education. Highly recommended.
  • The Tree School, a powerful art installation in São Paulo focused on learning, education and democracy. Completely altering the observer/observant dialogue, it encouraged interaction, meditation and more.
  • Contrafilé, the Brazilian art collective that co-launched The Tree School.
  • Campus in Camps is an experimental educational program based in Dheisheh refugee camp, Bethlehem Palestine.



Summer Camp Day Two: Why School?

On day two of the 2015 SoundOut Student Voice Summer Camp, students began to make meaning of the question, “Why school?”

Our camp cohort, who are all students of color, are enlivened by the question. Suddenly connecting camp with their regular school year learning, they connect schools with issues like gentrification, white privilege, discrimination and more. Authors like James Baldwin and Ann Petry are brought up by some, while others detail their hopes and dreams for education.

We examine the meanings of words, including the difference between school, learning and education. Students raise the issue of mindsets in school, and the importance of staying focused on your goals versus simply listening to where parents, teachers and other students think you should go.

Students have the opportunity to watch introductory presentations from another camp in the school called Project 206. Developed to introduce high school freshman to Cleveland, their participants have to present their own learning projects focused on the effects of gentrification on their neighborhoods. The SoundOut Summer Camp students remember their own introduction to Cleveland this way, and enjoy watching their incoming peers to the building.

The day continues by exploring songs focused on schools, education and learning, like Peter Tosh singing “You Can’t Blame the Youth” and the White Stripes’ “We Are Going To Be Friends”. I found Pink Floyds “Another Brick In The Wall Part II”, and suddenly all of them were humming the chorus: “We don’t need no education…”

At the end of the day, students had largely concluded that education was theirs to learn, and school is one vessel to use among many throughout their lives. Students closed out the day by exploring their thoughts on Maya Angelou’s quote,

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”


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Students as Integrated ResourceS (SIRS)

At Hudson High School of Teaching Technology in New York City, New York, students can participate in a program called Students as Integrated ResourceS, or SIRS. The program positions students in active student/adult partnerships that can foster Meaningful Student Involvement.

According to the teachers who operate it,  students volunteer and come in after school to participate in a hands on activity. In this setting, students and teachers discussed challenges, understandings, and possible mistakes. When their peers do the same activity in class, these specially trained students act as teachers who answer questions, help with procedures, monitor safety, and even engage the unmotivated individuals.

These SIRS have become an integrated and a necessary part of the class. On an occasion, one student who raised their hand for help saw a teacher coming and said “No, no. I want a SIRS.”

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StudentVoicesNUA™ is a program of the National Urban Alliance. It provides students with opportunities to co-create with teachers innovative curriculum-related projects using 21st century technology, to increase their involvement in professional development, to mediate literacy and learning strategies for parents, and to participate in leadership discussions and decision-making. An exciting part of StudentVoicesNUA™ is having students co-teach instructional units with their teachers.

StudentVoicesNUA™ have included student-produced publications, radio shows and videos; lessons plans co-created and presented by students; debating and public speaking; electronic field trips; student-led convocations; and podcasts.

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The Neutral Zone

In 1998, teens in Ann Arbor, Michigan worked together with adult allies to form a nonprofit youth center called The Neutral Zone. Driven and centered by young people and their interests, the organization has made powerful inroads for youth throughout their area. In 2012, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) approached the organization about infusing student voice across the state through the agency’s Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) initiative.

Targeting the lowest performing high schools statewide in Michigan, the program sought to raise levels of academic achievement through new school reform programs. Neutral Zone provided training and coaching to support teams of both staff and students from six pilot high schools. The goals were to have each team research school issues related to their school reform efforts, plan and implement a project that addresses one of the issues and to create an advisory body that could support sustained student involvement.

Over the last three years, Neutral Zone has provided intensive support for 20 high schools statewide focused on training and technical assistance on student voice. Their work has been lauded by the MDE as a success, with reports of student-driven projects that engage students deeply coming in from across the state.

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