Involving Young People on School Boards Is Good for Students — and for Democracy

Endres: Whether they're voting or advisory members, those most affected by board decisions should have a voice. 5 ways districts can make that happen.

This is a photo of two student representatives at a school board meeting in Washington state.
Savannah Yokel and Megan West, two student representatives to the Washougal School Board in Washington state. (Washougal School District)

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When you consider that students are the primary beneficiaries of school board decisions, empowering them with a voice on the board is critical to building better school systems. Engaging student board representatives prepares young people to participate in a democratic society by making them part of a local governing process. Board membership offers students an opportunity to gain valuable life skills, including leadership, community service and visibility into the broader decisions that will directly impact their lives.

Student representation on school boards is a growing national trend, and Washington state is a pioneer, with nearly half the 295 districts in the state — more than 120 — including students on their boards. According to the National Student Board Member Association, there are more than 500 student board members across 42 states representing more than 20 million students — a number projected to grow.

Often, these are non-voting members whose power comes from their ability to speak on the record and to influence peers to get involved in what’s happening at their schools. In rare cases, student representatives have a binding vote, such as in Maryland, where the state Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of having students under 18 serve as voting members.

Even in districts where students don’t have an official seat on their district board or on board advisory committees, they’re still showing up at meetings to make public comments and take part in important conversations.

This is a tremendous opportunity for school board members and district leaders to truly hear the perspectives of multifaceted, diverse students and to consider their experiences when making decisions that directly affect them.

During the past five years, I worked closely with school board directors across Washington state, and I observed many successful examples of districts where student representatives had a meaningful impact on policy. Here are some strategies and initiatives that all districts can employ.

First, there may be a tendency to appoint students who already hold leadership roles because they are known entities. It’s important to give the opportunity to all students announcing via social media, school apps, posters, QR codes and word of mouth that applications are open. A key part of this strategy is actively recruiting students with varied experiences and backgrounds and others who are not usually involved in school governance. Students themselves say this method is the most inclusive and leads to the most diversity of voices — something they greatly value.

Second, consider advisory voting — a simple process that many districts have been implementing recently that enables student representatives to voice the concerns, needs and viewpoints of the student body and submit a non-binding vote. After school board members have discussed an agenda item, the chair will ask the student representatives to offer an advisory vote — a chance to share their perspective with the rest of the board, for the record. Members can then consider that information when casting their votes. More and more boards are adopting this process, and the Washington State School Directors’ Association recently shared formal recommendations for districts earlier this year.

Third, engage students in real-world experiences. One Washington district assigned each student representative to analyze one section of a long-term strategic plan, break it down and clarify its implications for young people. They helped simplify the content and collected feedback from peers, which provided valuable insights for the board. In some districts, student representatives play a key role on superintendents’ advisory councils, which are designed to give district leaders feedback directly from students. Student board representatives will often lead these councils, helping to gather a wide array of perspectives and ideas and then bringing that information back to the board, where they can be considered in upcoming decisions.

Fourth, to sustain advances in student representation, schools and districts need to explicitly commit to providing opportunities for student voice. Whatever this looks like — board representation, surveys, focus groups, one-on-one conversations — districts should put it in writing so students know what to expect and can hold leaders accountable. One challenge in involving students is ensuring they feel their feedback has been taken seriously. When the issue of tokenization arises, it’s often because students weren’t acknowledged or no one responded to them, which makes them feel that they’re not seen, heard or valued. Usually, this is inadvertent. Making sure feedback and accountability measures are in place can head off this potential challenge.

Lastly, it’s not realistic to expect that two or three students on a school board can fully represent the perspective of every one of their peers across the district. But there are many ways to get more students involved. Districts can invite them onto advisory committees and topic-specific working groups. They can conduct polls and surveys and demonstrate how they used the results. They can hold leadership training workshops to prepare the next generation of student representatives.

Incorporating student voice into decision-making builds civic engagement and prepares students for the world that awaits them beyond high school. For student representatives on school boards, learning about governance, legislative processes and budgeting is priceless. But what such a program really does is ensure the health and vitality of the local school system and, by extension, the nation’s democracy.

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