Student Voice in Madison

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. Last week I had a chance to visit Madison, Wisconsin, where they are doing exactly that.

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Over 24 hours in two days, I sat with more than 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.

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I 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, I 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.

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Sitting with educators, administrators and several students on a new district wide student voice group, I had the opportunity to learn 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?

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I also work directly with district staff focused on youth engagement. We had a communitywide 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. I was 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.

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I’m so grateful for the opportunity that I had there! It’s been a fascinating 20 years of doing this work, and Madison is help me to begin to envision the future that’s a head for me as meaningful student involvement continues to grow.

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Roles for Students throughout the Education System

These are roles for students throughout education by Adam Fletcher for SoundOut.

What are the broadest possible roles for engaging students as partners throughout the K-12 education system? 


The most important thing when engaging students in any role in school is to acknowledge their first duty: Learning. Their learning is paramount to being meaningfully involved throughout schools. Learning through meaningful student involvement should include: stated learning goals, meaningful action, and sustained, deep reflection.

Following are a several roles students can have that can transform schools and education forever.

Roles for Students throughout the Education System

  • Students as Facilitators. Knowledge comes from study, experience, and reflection. Engaging students as learning guides and facilitators helps reinforce their commitment to learning and the subject they are teaching; it can also engage both young and older learners in exciting ways.
  • Students as Researchers. Identifying issues, surveying interests, analyzing findings, and developing projects in response are all powerful avenues for Student Voice.
  • Students as Planners. Planning includes program design, event planning, curriculum development, and hiring staff. Students planning activities can lend validity, creativity, and applicability to abstract concepts and broad outcomes.
  • Students as OrganizersCommunity organizing happens when leaders bring together everyone in a community in a role that fosters social change. Students community organizers focus on issues that affect themselves and their communities; they rally their peers, families, and community members for action.
  • Students as AdvocatesWhen students stand for their beliefs and understand the impact of their voices, they can represent their families and communities with pride, courage, and ability.
  • Students as Evaluators. Assessing and evaluating the effects of programs, classes, activities, and projects can promote Student Voice in powerful ways. Students can learn that their opinions are important, and their experiences are valid indicators of success.
  • Students as Experts. Envisioning roles for students to teach students is relatively easy; seeing new roles for students to teach adults is more challenging. Students specialists bring expert knowledge about particular subjects to programs and organizations, enriching everyone’s ability to be more effective.
  • Students as AdvisorsWhen students advise adults they provide genuine knowledge, wisdom, and ideas to each other, adults, schools, and education agencies, and other locations and activities that affect them and their world at large.
  • Students as Designers. Students participate in creating intentional, strategic plans for an array of activities, including curriculum, building construction, students and community programs, and more.
  • Students as Teachers. Facilitating learning for themselves, other students and educators, other adults in schools, or adults throughout our schools can be teachers of small and large groups in all kinds of topics. [Examples]
  • Students as Grant-makersStudents can identify funding, distribute grants, evaluate effectiveness, and conduct other parts of the process involved in grant-making.
  • Students as LobbyistsInfluencing policy-makers, legislators, politicians, and the people who work for them are among the activities for students as lobbyists.
  • Students as TrainersWhen they train adults, students, children, and others, youth can share their wisdom, ideas, knowledge, attitudes, actions, and processes in order to guide programs, nurture organization and community cultures, and change the world.
  • Students as PoliticiansRunning for political office at the community, city, county, or state levels, students can be politicians in a variety of positions. In some places, they can run for school boards or as education trustees too.
  • Students as Recruiters. Students building excitement, sharing motivation, or otherwise helping their peers and other people to get involved, create change, or make all sorts of things happen throughout schools and the entire education system.
  • Students as Social entrepreneursWhen students recognize a social problem, they can use entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to make schools and their communities change.
  • Students as Paid staffWhen schools hire students, they can be staff members in schools and throughout the education system. They can fulfill many roles on this list in paid positions.
  • Students as Mentors. Mentoring is a non-hierarchical relationship between students and adults, adults and students, or among students themselves, that helps facilitate learning and guidance for each participant.
  • Students as Decision-MakersMaking rules in classrooms is not the only way to engage students in decision-making. Participating in formal and informal decision-making, students can be school board members, education committee members, and in many different roles throughout schools.
  • Students as Activity Leaders. As activity leaders in schools and education agencies, students can facilitate, teach, guide, direct, and otherwise lead youth, adults, and children in a variety of ways.
  • Students as Policy-MakersWhen they research, plan, write, and evaluate education rules, regulations, laws, and other policies, students as policy-makers can enrich, substantiate, enliven, and impact the outcomes of policies and schools in many ways.


These are merely some of the roles. What others can YOU think of? Share your thoughts in the comments section!


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Student Courts and Meaningful Student Involvement

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement
Students deliberate on important issues in a Seattle high school.
Student and adults deliberate together on important issues in a Seattle high school.

Student courts are one approach to engaging students as partners in school discipline. Student courts can happen in elementary, middle, and high school, and when they operate outside schools, they are youth courts. Most often, they provide conflict resolution and interpretation of student bylaws and constitutions. When infused with classroom learning goals and provided equitable opportunities for decision-making as adults, student courts can reflect Meaningful Student Involvement at the highest levels.

What They Do

Elementary, middle and high schools are using student courts as a way to engage students as partners in safe and supportive learning environments. They are also using student courts to teach students about justice and court issues, and to provide an alternative to other forms of punishment for students who disobey rules in order to defeat the school-to-prison pipeline and engage disengaged students.

How They Happen

The first step to creating a student court is to understand that these bodies are basically juries that are made of students alone. Whether happening on the classroom, building, district or state level, student courts should consider these five issues:

  1. Composition – Who will be on the court? How many students will be allowed? How will they be selected? How will they be trained? How long can they be members of the court?
  2. Jurisdiction – What types of offenses will the court rule on? How do student confidentiality laws and overall student safety affect the court?
  3. Preparation – How will students on the court will be trained to be effective and impartial jurors? How will adults learn about student courts?
  4. Operation – When, where and how will student court hearings be conducted? Who will evaluate student success? How will students be acknowledged for participating?
  5. Partnerships – How will student/adult partnerships be evident throughout the proceedings? Who will decide which cases the court hears? Who holds ultimate veto power over the court?


As more schools and districts realize the educational potential of student courts for both the students serving on them and those that go before them, they are becoming a popular way to engage students in school decision-making. Like other forms of student government, student court promotes student voice by engaging students as responsible, equitable partners in affecting and shaping schools.

What It Looks Like

Students in Marin County, California, have been partners in youth courts for more than a decade. Committed to eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline, these students learn to use restorative justice practices that keep students in schools and out of the juvenile justice system. With a non-adversarial, student-to-student philosophy at its core, Marin County youth courts have diverted more than 900 students from the juvenile justice system. Their completion rate is 95%, with only 8% recidivism, startling naysayers who insist youth courts are “soft on crime”.

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Understanding School Districts

If schools use Meaningful Student Involvement as an organizing construct, they have to teach students about the structure of education, including school districts. In the United States and Canada, a school district is the governing administration unit serving a particular geographic area. Public school district boundaries are determined by state education agencies, and include between one and 100 schools, including elementary, middle or junior, and high schools.


The purpose of public school districts in North America is to implement a democratic system of public education. Every state in the U.S. and province in Canada has districts of some form, with some following county governments and boundaries while others carve up cities in several ways. Generally, their purpose remains the same.


School districts are organized in several ways. They include:

  • District School Board: Local residents are voted into office on a public board of education serving the school district. They meet weekly, bi-weekly or monthly to control the finances of schools, curriculum in schools, facilities for schools and personnel serving schools. The board is responsible for hiring and supervising the district superintendent. The district school board is ultimately accountable to the voters who elect them.
  • District Superintendent: The school district superintendent is the leader of all public schools, and is ultimately accountable to the elected school board that hired them. In turn, they hire people to manage schools under them that form the school district office staff. They also hire the leaders of individual schools – principals.
  • District Staff: In most school districts with enough students, the superintedent needs to hire people to help them get work done. These people can include assistant superintendents, financial officials, legal counsel, technology specialists, curriculum and assessment and student support services staff, and others. They support principals and teachers in administering specific government grants focused on serving low-income students, students of different abilities, homeless students and others. They often act
  • Principals: Districts only exist to administer individual schools. The leaders of these buildings are principals, at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Principals are responsible for ensuring students are effectively educated, and ultimately responsible for ensuring district voters’ wishes for schools are enacted. Hiring teachers, school support staff and others, principals also make sure teachers receive the ongoing educations they need to serve students.

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Barriers to School Transformation

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Students at the 2015 SoundOut Summer Camp addressed barriers to their engagement in school transformation.


For as long as there have been public schools, there have been calls for school reform, education improvement and other changes. The entire time, there have been many things that have stopped these changes from happening, sometimes positive and other times challenging. There are many barriers to school transformation through Meaningful Student Involvement, student voice and student engagement, too.

Ultimately, barriers to school transformation through Meaningful Student Involvement don’t simply affect Meaningful Student Involvement. As an approach to transforming schools, Meaningful Student Involvement seeks to help all students become more successful in education. When Meaningful Student Involvement fails, students are further challenged. That’s why its vital to address them head-on by naming what they are, finding alternatives and successes that happen in spite of these challenges.

Types of Barriers

Overcoming Barriers

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