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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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.


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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Escola da Ponte

Escola da Ponte is a school in Portugal that has embodied Meaningful Student Involvement in classrooms successfully for over 30 years.

Students voluntarily attend workshops to learn how to direct their learning processes. These courses are supervised by teachers trained in active methodologies. After they’ve completed these workshops, students develop the school’s curricula. Mainly governed by a weekly assembly, the school is organized and totally run by students.

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Jefferson County Open School

The Jefferson County Open School is a public preK-12 school in Edgewood, Colorado, that embodies Meaningful Student Involvement.


All students focus on personal identity, social interaction and intellectual inquiry. This holistic curriculum is reflected in the twenty-four graduation expectations and the incorporation of personal goals in an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) which is carried out in mutually agreeable programs worked out between each student and advisor.


At this school, students of all ages interact and learn from each other. Self-direction is a fundamental principle, and every student is engaged in and in charge of their own learning. The Open School provides a dynamic environment that fosters the development of the unique potential in each individual by nurturing and challenging the whole person. There is an emphasis on self-direction, learning through experience, shared responsibility, and the development of life long-skills. Students experience a lot of out-of-school learning opportunities, with overnight camping trips for elementary students and trips for older students to travel the world.

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Port Jervis School District

In 1972, students and adults in Port Jervis School District in Port Jervis, New York, worked together to redesign the district’s schools.


Working with teachers, administrators, parents, school board members and community organization leaders the student/adult gathering had 125 participants. They came up with a list of education reforms that included:

  • Making arrangements to distribute school newsletters in languages other than English
  • Planning a new community youth center
  • Starting a radio program produced by students
  • Setting up mentorships for young people with adults in the community
  • Arranging to make schools more available for community activities

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Park Forest Elementary School

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement

Elementary students are often lost in the fray when it comes to substantive student voice. Not so at Park Forest Elementary School in State College, Pennsylvania.

Through her school’s work focused on Meaningful Student Involvement, a school leader in Pennsylvania has successfully engaged students as policy-makers who are molding school culture and driving positive Student/Adult Partnerships every day. Donnan Stoicovy, the lead learner at Park Forest Elementary School, created a student-led constitution process at her school in 2012.

That year, students from kindergarten through fifth grade attended eight all-school town hall meetings focused on their ideal schools. Working with adults who had a variety of jobs, over the following six months a schoolwide constitution was created.

Adults and students received training, were guided through the process and worked together to build the democratic environment of their school. (McGarry & Stoicovy, 2014)

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Federal Hocking High School

2013LearningthruMSIIn rural Stuart, Ohio, Federal Hocking High School gives students an equal place at the table when faculty hiring decisions are made, when curriculum is chosen, and when class offerings are determined. A former principal recently commented that,

“Students often find themselves preached to about values instead of practicing them. That’s why our efforts have been to focus on practice rather than exhortation. Everything we do, including classroom teaching practices, school governance, students’ experience… out of school, assessment, even the organization of the school day, is done with an eye toward developing democratic community.”

Students are also given full responsibility for all student events and various school programs, and a student serves on the local school board. (Haynes, 2014)

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Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School

The Independent Project at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, shows great potential for student voice and student/adult partnerships.

Regarded as a “school within a school”, the project was intended to, “create a school that allows young people to be completely invested and to move every kind of human being through the same gate.”

Student-driven learning fills this space, which is focused on science, history, math, and reading and writing. They work on individual endeavors and group projects, and address serious social issues throughout their learning. Students work intensively with adult mentors in Student/Adult Partnerships, and self-actualize their investment and ownership in their own learning.

Although the school operates in sync with an adult-led mainstream high school, the story of the Independent Project is exceptional because it is a student-driven effort focused on improving education for all students, and not merely those who started it.

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Toronto District School Board Power Your Future Program

The Toronto District School Board launched a summer school called Power Your Future, or PYF. PYF sites feature shared leadership between students and adults, which is a primary component of Meaningful Student Involvement.

Starting with the commitment of individual school site principals, Power Your Future wanted to make sure all student voices are heard and considered, and recognize when particular student voices are being silenced. The principal of one site wrote, “The voices of summer school students are often those that remain silent. Yet ideas and opinions of students who might be struggling in school are perhaps the most important voices for administrators to hear and understand.” *

Through a variety of activities, students were able to take action and learn what they wanted to in schools. By the end of the summer, students were running cooperative games and activities for all of the other summer school students.

Using the Ladder of Student Involvement, this program actively moved students from being passive recipients of adult-driven learning towards becoming active partners throughout their education. That is a great goal all schooling should follow.

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