When Adam Fletcher was hired as the student engagement specialist for Washington state's education department 10 years ago, it didn't take him long to realize how difficult his newly created job would prove. "No one was talking about the roles of students other than as learners," says Fletcher, referring to a state teachers' conference early in his career. "They laughed out loud at the proposal of students being partners in school improvement. It really was preposterous to them."
It didn't help that the federal No Child Left Behind law followed a few years later, which focused the attention of educators on getting high standardized test results rather than getting students involved in shaping the culture of their schools and playing a role in how those schools operate. "Here I was holding up this sheet of glass," he explains, referring to his newfangled ideas, "as this large lead ball of NCLB rolled down a mountain toward it."
The landscape faced by Fletcher, who has since become an educational consultant and one of the country's leading advocates for student empowerment through the organization SoundOut, has undergone a transformation as schools and districts have discovered the value in engaging students in more than academics. And those students have responded, from taking the lead in educating themselves and their teachers on a variety of topics to becoming activists for school-related issues from teenage suicide to service learning to better nutrition during the school day. And in some cases, say principals and other educational leaders, they are improving their academic achievement along the way.
Activism in Anne Arundel
In the Anne Arundel (Md.) County Public Schools, student involvement has become a districtwide priority. "When you listen to our superintendent [Kevin Maxwell] talk at the school board meetings, he emphasizes that we are truly about challenging our students to become a greater part of our society," says Heather Jenkins, who directs Anne Arundel's Student Leadership and Involvement Office. "It's expected from the top down."
In 2005, Maxwell created a superintendent's Teen Advisory committee, composed of two student representatives from each of the district's high schools, which meets with him and other district officials three or four times annually. Recently, student input from this committee has led to changes such as providing dinner for students in the evening high school program and revising course curricula to better facilitate the service learning projects—from tutoring to running a Toys for Tots campaign—required of all Maryland high school students. "A lot of positive things have come from having this direct line to the superintendent," says Jenkins.
She also coordinates the efforts of student representatives from the district's 32 middle and high schools in the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils (CRASC), a county student government association. The group runs monthly general assemblies, forums on issues from school discipline procedures to the district's curriculum, and student leadership workshops at individual schools on topics such as group functioning, project planning, and running effective meetings.
CRASC also elects the student representative to the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, which determines the budget and policies for the district's more than 100 schools. Jenkins points out that Anne Arundel is the only district in the country to accord this student representative full voting rights on the board of education.
Several years ago, one such student helped the district save thousands of dollars a year with an idea to streamline the school bus schedule during exam periods. "Our student board member doesn't sit back," Jenkins says. "And anytime the board of education looks at a policy impacting students, the members look to the student member."
Recently, CRASC members testified before Maryland's state legislature, which is exploring having other districts in the state give voting rights to students on their boards of education. That kind of activism has rubbed off, Jenkins points out. "A few years back, students were not allowed to carry their books in backpacks for safety reasons," she recalls, "and some students approached the principal at one middle school to reach a compromise with 'see through' mesh bags." "This goes on everyday," Jenkins explains. "And the students here realize that when they change something, they are becoming part of something greater."
A National Program in San Diego
While Anne Arundel's student empowerment initiatives are homegrown and wide-ranging, other schools have availed themselves of more-specialized existing programs, from those aimed at having students exert positive pressure on their peers to running parent-teacher conferences to raising awareness about school nutrition.
For the past four years, San Diego's Mission Hill High School has participated in PLUS (Peer Leaders Uniting Students), a program created in 1999 by California-based educator John Vandenburgh and implemented in dozens of high schools and middle schools around the country, to foster greater inclusion and better communication in school, and to have students themselves lead the process.
"There are a lot of kids on campus who want to help, to listen, to exert positive peer pressure," says school and PLUS counselor Cherryl Baker. "We gave them an opportunity to step up and have their voices heard."
An initial group of 35 Mission Hill students attended a two-day, 12-hour training program consisting of group activities and discussions about issues that most affected their lives in school, especially bullying, name calling, and excluding fellow students.
Since then, these students have facilitated more than a dozen four-hour forums for almost 500 of their Mission Hill peers, as well as annual forums at two nearby middle schools.
"The kids are trained to say, 'What are we going to do about this?' and to realize that one person can make a difference," says Baker. "We've had kids with troubled pasts who were the bullies in middle school and have taken ownership and admitted that they were wrong," says Baker. "This awareness of the impact that their actions have had on others is huge."
PLUS has also evolved from being an after-school club at Mission Hill High School to an in-school class, and its members have organized awareness-raising lunchtime activities, including drug and suicide awareness days. "Kids will listen to other kids way easier and faster than to an adult," observes Baker, who adds that PLUS fulfills an outreach mission that the school's counseling staff would otherwise be unable to accomplish. "We're short staffed, and our case load was very large. And our greatest resource right here is the kids. They know what they need."
"When you include kids in the process, it gives them ownership and responsibility," adds Nelson Beaudoin, a former high school principal in Maine and the author of Elevating Student Voice: How to Enhance Participation, Leadership and Citizenship.
The New Parent Conference
At other school districts, students have taken on the responsibility for running the traditional parent-teacher conference, an approach that developed around the country during the mid 1990s and has continued to gain in popularity.
Twice a year in the Francis Howell School District in St. Charles, Mo., all middle school students take charge of parent conferences by presenting highlights of their work in various subjects, suggesting ways that they could improve, and outlining action steps to that end. "It's all about the students, so why leave them out?" says Sue Hartman, the principal at the Mary Emily Bryan Middle School in the Francis Howell district.
Even though teachers at the school assemble a portfolio of student work, the students themselves fill out information on what they need to do better, Hartman explains, and learn how to present a portfolio and set goals. "The kids like to talk about themselves and how they've done," Hartman says. The meeting also endows Francis Howell's students with a heightened sense of responsibility, which they are willing to take on, Hartman continues. "Kids that age don't usually sit down and take a hard look at what they're doing and how they need to improve," she says. "They can see that they have control over their learning."
The changing roles and responsibilities for students—from the elementary grades to high school—have even seeped into the ground, in the form of proliferating school gardens that produce food for the school salad bar, and more.
The Seattle-based Puget Sound School Gardens Collective helps students in western Washington grow and harvest an assortment of vegetables on the grounds of dozens of elementary schools, and in the process raise awareness of better nutritional habits. "Some report eating more fruits and vegetables," says Erin MacDougall, who directs the program. "And they love to toss a salad with other kids who may not have participated."
Supervision of these gardens has depended mostly on volunteers, from teachers to AmeriCorps volunteers, adds MacDougall, who has organized "summits" so that they can share practices. Two years ago, MacDougall secured a grant to create the Food Empowerment Education and Sustainability Team (FEEST), aimed at getting students from two high schools in an underserved Seattle neighborhood in the Seattle Public Schools to better understand the food system in their community.
The program began as a weekly potluck dinner, at which almost 50 team members discussed issues of better nutrition, especially the inclusion of more fresh fruits and vegetables in diets, while eating produce from a local farm.
The students have since started raising their own produce behind a local cultural arts center, and MacDougall says that their discussions have progressed to the level of social justice, especially since their neighborhood has 24 convenience stores but not one full-service grocery store.
"They talk about how it's harder to get healthier foods there than in a grocery store in an affluent neighborhood. They've become engaged and empowered to want to do something," she says, noting that some have begun working with their school lunch programs to make them more nutritional. "It's amazing how it's gone from potlucks to owning it," MacDougall observes. "They just needed a seed."
Those who advocate for and practice greater student empowerment say that this approach still faces widespread resistance. "Adults just don't think students are ready for such responsibilities. It's such a hurdle," notes George Patmor, a Murray State (Ky.) University education professor who has studied student engagement. "To them, planning for the prom is as far as student involvement goes."
Patmor also warns that school and district leaders can fall prey to token student involvement in decision-making instead of the real thing, especially on advisory panels to school principals. "Students have to see that what they've expressed and the decisions they've made are carried through," Patmor says.
It's also not clear that increased student involvement in school affairs will always translate into higher standardized test scores or higher academic achievement. Mission Hill's Cherryl Baker says although she cannot quantify the difference that PLUS has made to its participants, she's seen plenty of anecdotal evidence.
"They're held to a higher social responsibility," Baker says. "If they're talking to kids about not drinking or doing drugs, they can't be out partying on Saturday night. If you're flunking out of classes, you're not helping."
And Baker adds that such students are going to be good neighbors. "They'll open the door for the old lady. They'll watch their neighbor's child while the neighbor goes for a job interview," she concludes. "They have that innate sensitivity that lets them be more empathetic. That's powerful stuff. That's a lesson for all of us.
Ron Schachter is a contributing writer for District Administration.