Student Voice: Don’t Just Listen to Students; Give Them Power

Hope Street Group
Mar 7, 2019 · 6 min read

By Michael Klein

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On December 3, 2018, Dayton and Keha, two students from Kilauea School, presented at my school’s Academic Review Team (ART), which serves as our leadership team. They were there to talk about three important issues important to the school. They had prepared a school-wide survey to get input on these three issues and received a lot of student input from their peers, which they reviewed to prepared a presentation for the leadership team.

Because of the power of their presentation and ideas, the ART added “We will continue to include Student Council reps at our quarterly ART meetings” to Kilauea School’s Academic Plan Monitoring Tool. The ART listened to student voice and then gave them more power to be on the leadership team regularly.

The current educational movement in our public school system is focused on student-centered learning, student-centered schools, student-centered discussions, activities, and philosophy. Student voice is increasingly becoming more and more important. Schools and districts are discussing ways to improve student voice. But are we discussing ways of giving students actual power?

Would we consider having a student voting member on our Board of Education? Would we consider students being on our school and district’s teacher hiring committees? Would we allow students to evaluate teachers, principals, and even our superintendents? Would we consider having students at principal meetings to make decisions alongside principals? Would we want students being a part of the budgetary decisions of our schools, districts, and states? Would we consider having them being part of the process of designing new schools? Would we consider students being present when making decisions about curriculum or texts for our school? Would we allow students to give input on and vote on school calendars, for the length of the school day or year?

Research indicates that students who believe they have a voice in school are seven times more likely to be academically motivated than students who do not believe they have a voice (Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations, 2016). For all of the important decisions that our schools, departments of education, and districts make, is student voice present, but more importantly, are students present?

Dr. Christina M. Kishimoto, the Hawai’i State Superintendent, has rolled out the 2017–2020 Hawai’i Department of Education Implementation plan that makes student voice a key priority. This is a bold step in the right direction, but do students really have “power” in this plan to not only share their “voice” but to make decisions with the key stakeholders who have traditionally had the only real power?

Student voice is more than listening to them at a meeting or two during the year. Student voice is more than eliciting their opinions on an occasional survey. Student voice is more than listening to students at an occasional focus group. Student voice is more than allowing a student representative to be present at a leadership meeting. Student voice is more than having a student council. It is about listening to them and then giving them power. Several years ago, Montgomery County Maryland School District voted to actually have a student member elected by their peers who can vote on board decisions. This is real student voice and student leadership.

Can we empower students to be more than passive recipients of education, to be equal stakeholders and leaders?

I had the opportunity to visit the SEEQS charter school on Oahu a couple of years ago where not only do students have a voice in their learning, but they have power through their school’s “Town Hall.” This enables students, teachers, and administration to steer the school. All members, including students, can bring motions for the Town Hall to discuss, debate, and vote on. Students actually brought a motion to change the passing time in their school schedule and after much debate, it was passed. Students were heard and granted the power to change, to have a hand in the important decisions on their campus. How many of our schools allow students to steer their schools?

I also had the opportunity to visit Waikiki Elementary School and participate in the P4C group in fellow Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow alum Lori Peroff’s elementary school classroom. Students came up with the questions to focus on and then students discussed and came up with a myriad of answers to the question that they ultimately chose. Students were in charge of their learning and listened and learned from each other. Student voice was important in Lori’s room and students were given the power to lead the discussion and to learn. Student voice is essential in the classroom, but isn’t it just as important at the school level, district level, or state level where budgetary and policy decisions are made?

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On my island of Kaua’i, the Kaua’i Teacher Fellowship is an innovative collaborative which aims to bring teacher and student voice to the decision making process for the Kaua’i school district. Over the last two years, teachers and principals have collaborated to problem solve important issues that our schools are facing. Teachers have even been invited to more regularly attend principal meetings where important issues are discussed and decisions are made. It is hoped that student voice and regular student representatives will also become an important part of the principal meetings. How many of our districts have students collaborating and making decisions with principals? Why not?

As part of the Kaua’i Teacher Leader Fellowship, I have been emboldened to garner student voice at my own school. I meet with our student leaders and listen to their voices as a small step towards incorporating students into the decisions that need to be made at our school. At a recent meeting with the student council, I was astounded to hear their creative and thoughtful responses to my questions:

“If you were the principal, what would you change at our school?”

“In what ways could we get student opinions on important issues at our school?”

“What changes do we need to make at our school?”

“What issues or problems are students facing now that teachers and students should hear about?”

Students have solutions.

I was so proud of Dayton and Keha, our student council president and vice-president, when they presented to our leadership team in December. Our school leaders listened to them and heard them. And now they will be part of our leadership team and will be regularly asked for their input. They will not only have a voice, but they will have a place and actual power on our leadership team.

Adam Fletcher, the founder of Soundout, an organization which promotes meaningful student involvement, student voice, and student engagement states, “Meaningful student involvement is the engaging of students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community and democracy.” It is my opinion that if we value student voice, if we value student-centered learning, then we will not only listen to students, but we will give them the power to be collaborative partners, to work alongside teachers, principals, board members, and superintendents.

We need to share leadership and power with students. We need to empower our students to be leaders in our schools. We have a lot to learn from our students. If our schools are about our students and their learning then we need to trust students, listen to their voices, and give them power. In this way, students can take real ownership of their learning, classes, and their schools by being part of every decision that is made about them.

Michael Kline is a Special Education preschool teacher at Kilauea Elementary School on Kaua’i. He is passionate about teacher leadership and play-based education. Mr. Kline is currently an active alumnus with Hope Street Group and helps to facilitate the Kaua’i Teacher Fellowship. He has been a National Board Certified teacher since 2003 as an Exceptional Needs Specialist and is Kaua’i’s National Board Candidate Support provider since 2015. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Education from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and a Master of Curriculum Studies from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

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