By Adam Fletcher, Director of SoundOut.org

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 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.

Students on Boards webpage from the Michigan Association of Student Councils

  • Students on School Boards webpage from SoundOut
  • Boston Student Advisory Council
  • Students on School Boards in Maryland
  • Published by Adam Fletcher

    Adam is the founding director of SoundOut. An author, speaker and consultant, he has worked with K-12 schools, districts, nonprofits and others for more than 15 years. Learn more about him at http://soundout.org/Adam

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