Students Speak Out:
How One School Opens the Doors to
Meaningful Student Involvement
By Adam Fletcher for
The results are in. Students have a
definite vision of what schools should be like. Their visions include:
Students as equals. Interactive, integrated classes. Self-assessment
and self-driven learning. Safe, comfortable learning spaces. Modern,
diverse, and relevant textbooks. As one student said, "Just
the fact that everyone in the whole room agrees on what a school
should be like, but there isn’t one like that here."
the spring of 2004, over 100 students in a public alternative high
school in suburban Seattle partnered with teachers and students from
other area high schools to create a plan for meaningful student
involvement in their school.
The first step in the Secondary Academy for Success (SAS) plan was a
program that included a series of
skill-building and planning workshops for a self-selected group of
students who were interested in changing their school. These
students formed the nucleus of the Student Leadership Team at SAS.
A course of action and several objectives for the
Student Leadership Team were laid out.
They focused on creating an all-day, student-facilitated
forum where students could discuss the successes and challenges in
their learning experiences.
the forum included:
students becoming central
contributors to the school improvement process at SAS
experiencing meaningful involvement as both facilitators and
students developing a concrete course of action for school change,
culminating in a student presentation to school staff.
one adult facilitator commented, the purpose of this forum was for
"Students actually changing schools. And.. students and teachers...
work[ing] together to make that real." Another said, "We’re going to
talk about ‘how you learn best. We want to know what students think is
important to learn. And the next part of that is how you want
students and adults involved believed that this route would provide a
vital accountability loop to students about the outcomes of their
contributions, and validate student voice.
initial steps of the process included training a group of ten to
twelve students as student forum facilitators. The
students participated in teambuilding, self-awareness, and critical
thinking activities in preparation for their roles as facilitators at
the whole-school forum. During these sessions students wrote the
discussion questions and sampled a variety of activities in a one-day
Dozens of students and teachers are holding
hands in the middle of the old cafeteria. On "GO!" they start twisting
and contorting like a giant circular caterpillar, sending a pair of
hula hoops over their bodies and around their group.
was a success. The Student Leadership Team worked with teachers to
lead discussions with 70 other students in small groups. After
participating in icebreakers and an activity about styles of
communication, students discussed what they thought were challenges in
schools, and what they thought needed to change. Throughout the day
there were several initiative exercises and breaks. When students were
done brainstorming, their small groups created visuals that detailed
their beliefs about "The Perfect School." Suggestions came in many
forms, including these thoughts from students:
"We think the perfect school would be
a school where the teachers are not as much teachers as they are
students, and everybody works in a group together on the same
projects. And the teachers and students would have respect for
can pursue their learning in or outside of the school, in formal
course work or independent studies. In each case the student writes a
contract with a stated goal of learning."
are no grades. All assessment is merit driven."
governance of the schools is handled through your sub-communities,
where anyone, including students can join and participate."
academic classes... some kids were really interested in like life
skills and knowledge and how to socialize and stuff like Latin and
that kind of stuff."
about just learning to get along with people."
to learn history by like traveling...not traveling, but like going on
field trips. Like going places - museums and stuff. Instead of like
learning from a book. I don’t want to learn from a book. I want to
actually do things."
Student Leadership Team member noted, "These [students] really want a
place that they can go that is something that they like. A school
where they can learn what they want to learn and that they can be
comfortable... and be equal with everyone."
the most exciting thing in our group is that the kids are starting to
dream. It started really tiny like
changing the attendance policy or not getting in trouble if they have
three unexcused absences. And now all of a sudden the box is opening
a lot more and the positive list is starting to develop."
After the forum, the Student Leadership Team compiled
notes from the Forum into a written report that
was presented to the entire student body in classroom meetings, and to
the local board of education. Every student in the school had the
opportunity to respond to the findings and to the Forum overall.
Reflecting on that process, one Student Leadership Team member said,
"It is interesting how much alike
different people are as far as their opinions on school are."
The report also included recommendations on actions that the school can
take, and ways to create an environment that supports meaningful
student involvement at SAS.
Ultimately, this Forum is just the tip of
an iceberg. As one adult at the Forum reflected afterwards,
"These [students] have never ever
talked about school like this before in their lives. And it freaks
[them] out. So of course they are going to run off, because they don’t
even know if adults are really listening. They don’t even know if what
they are saying matters. So what needs to happen now is that school
needs show them that ‘yes, it matters. We are listening.’"
Research has proven that in order for students to become
actual partners in school reform efforts, meaningful student
involvement must be a sustainable and deliberate component in school
change processes. Through the Forum and Student Leadership, SAS has
begun that transformation and created a foundation for a successful -
and meaningful - future for all students.