Ava Zhang is learning to advocate for herself on the superintendent advisory council in the Seattle-area Mercer Island School District. “I know I have a say in making change,” says Zhang, a sophomore.
And the change she’s working toward is based on feedback she receives from other students. “We’re talking about tangible goals,” she says. “We’re talking about belonging and changing the curriculum for subjects like anti-bullying so people are more accepting.”
Belonging is one of the four B’s Zhang and her fellow superintendent advisory council members are promoting this school year; the others are belief, barriers and broadcasting. That is, getting students to believe in themselves, overcoming barriers and broadcasting student voice. “Belief is about getting to the point where students believe in themselves and have someone who believes in them,” says advisory council member Ryan Hsi. “We’re looking at ensuring that every student has a trusted adult to talk to.”
Students in the fifth to 12th grades now serve on Mercer Island’s advisory council and all are focused on taking action, Superintendent Fred Rundle says. “One of the things we heard last year was the group likes coming together to share ideas but they wanted to do something,” Rundle explains. “So, we set out to explore these four B’s that are integral to our success. Without them, we won’t be able to attend to students as their whole selves.”
Diversity is a priority for the council’s students, who work to recruit new members who are not already in some type of school leadership position. “It’s not just the loudest students, it’s also the quieter ones,” says senior Andrew Howison, who is also a student representative to the Mercer Island school board. “It’s students who represent different cultures and identities because it’s a committee that has access to the superintendent and a great amount of ability to make change.”
The council recently spent a day gathering feedback from middle and elementary school students about how present the four B’s are in their buildings. “Something I heard a lot was that students want to feel represented, whether it’s through guest speakers or books that represent all cultures,” says Asha Woerner, who also serves as a student school board representative.
“This committee gives students an opportunity to control their futures, and see their options and abilities,” Zhang adds.
Superintendent advisory council: A leader’s perspective
Rundle, the Mercer Island superintendent, has been heard saying that the advisory council sessions are his favorite of all the meetings on his calendar. “And they enrich my other meetings,” he points out. “If I’m talking to the school board or the PTA or teachers, I can speak with authenticity and credibility about what students are saying—I’m bringing forward that voice because I have the information.”
That collective student voice has lately been expressing a lack of confidence that their feedback will actually bring about change. “If you’re going to find truly representative voices from around your district, be ready for all aspects of that feedback,” Rundle adds. “Students are very honest. If you, as a leader, are not ready to listen and then act, it’s probably not something that’s worth anyone’s time.”
Some principals in the district are now launching their own building-based advisory councils. “What we always need to remember is that schools were not built for adults; they were built for students and they are community spaces for students,” Rundle says. “We are here to facilitate their learning in preparation for life beyond our schools.”
Ultimately, the advisory council helps Rundle “stay grounded in students” as administrators often risk losing connection with classrooms when they move into the central office. “The council gives me windows into our schools that I may not otherwise see and then have conversations with principals, teachers, bus drivers, nurses, paraeducators,” he concludes. “These are opportunities for students to pull up a chair and join in as meaningful participants, not just as passive observers.”