Taking the Lead: What Happens When Students Help Run Their High Schools

Involving students in major school decisions improves their learning environment and academic performance. Here’s how.

A photo of three students standing outside of their school in Washington, D.C.
Washington Leadership Academy students Makayla Holland, Autumn Brown and Elijah Lopez. (Eric Collazo)

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Updated May 8 | This article has been produced in partnership between The 74 and the XQ Institute.

In February, 16-year-old junior Elijah Lopez got an unusual invitation from his Washington, D.C., high school, Washington Leadership Academy. Members of its executive leadership team were planning their spring retreat in March. They contacted Elijah about inviting students to participate for the first time.

“They wanted student perspective,” he explained. “Ask questions of the students, get some feedback, and then make their decision based on our answers.”

Elijah was already a student representative, meaning he attends weekly meetings with WLA’s executive director, principal and other senior leaders to discuss future plans. At his suggestion, two more juniors active in student government were invited to the retreat virtually. 

The students made concrete suggestions. They persuaded WLA leadership to train more students in peer mediation and helped everyone agree that shutting the doors for entry after a certain hour to reduce tardiness would do more harm than good. They said attendance could improve (after dropping during the pandemic) if more students feel a sense of belonging. Student Autumn Brown explained how some students don’t like being called on by teachers.

“They don’t feel comfortable being called out and speaking in front of big crowds,” the 16-year-old said. “So I feel like when a teacher can just come to the student one-on-one and not, like, put the student on the spot, then it makes the student more comfortable.”

WLA has been emphasizing youth voice and choice — one of six research-based XQ Design Principles — since opening in 2016 as an XQ Super School. The public charter school of about 390 students included students and teachers when it partnered with CommonLit to create an ELA curriculum in 2018 that’s now used in high schools around the country. 

“What we want is to not just have the sense of students co-leading with us, but actually leading adults,” Principal Eric Collazo said. He added that educators are often hesitant to include students, even though there are many benefits. “What we’ve found is in instances where you do release that responsibility to the students, you actually see them start to put into practice or apply the skills that we want to see — not only in high school but beyond in their college or career pathways.” 

Student voice is one of many ways to rethink the high school experience. Learn more with the XQ Xtra, a newsletter for educators that comes out twice a month. Sign up HERE

This is how student voice leads to meaningful, engaged learning, another XQ design principle. Students who are engaged in school are 2.5 times more likely to get excellent grades and to do well in school overall, compared with their most disengaged peers, according to a 2016 Gallup poll

Ensuring students feel heard is core to all XQ schools and partnerships, including those with the DC Public Schools, New York City, Rhode Island, and XQ’s sponsorship of the podcast This Teenage Life. Unfortunately, too many students seemed dissatisfied with school even before the pandemic. In 2017, YouthTruth released a survey finding only one out of three middle and high school students rated their school culture positively. There are many ways, as laid out here, schools can improve their culture by creating more room for student voice — so long as they’re committed to listening.

Surveys and Focus Groups Can Produce ‘a Really Important Starting Point’

Many schools use surveys, but there are pros and cons to this approach. When surveys superficially ask, “What do you think of schools?” The responses are often just about school lunches and bathroom quality, said Adam Fletcher, director of SoundOut, which provides training tools and technical assistance to K-12 schools. That’s why, he said, surveys or focus groups must go deeper. 

At WLA, students said their school uses anonymous surveys with pointed questions like, “Who is the staff member you feel most connected to?” or “How can we help support you to be a better student?” 

Zachary Clifton, a member of the Kentucky Student Voice Team, said it’s also important to hear from a wide variety of students. He’s heavily involved in extracurricular activities at Corbin High School and has no issue talking to adults at his school. “I feel like that has given me more credibility to where my voice is heard more often than others,” he said. “But as you know, that’s not how democracy works.”

Surveys and focus groups can “produce information about students’ perceptions of their schools that are a really important starting point,” said Anne Mackinnon, a senior advisor at XQ who’s written toolkits for schools to include student voice. She said educators should look for whether there’s mutual trust between students and adults. Then, they need to authentically bring students into school decision-making to create caring, trusting relationships, another XQ design principle. Feedback from students at Elizabethton High School in Tennessee, for example, led the district’s only high school to hire more counselors

The Institution of Student Journalism Empowers Students

High school journalism programs give teens a sense of agency by enabling them to explore their interests and share what they find with the larger community. The recent Student Journalism Challenge revealed how many students want school to feel more interesting. The challenge was conducted by PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs in partnership with WETA Well Beings campaign and XQ. You can see the winners here. Elizabethton High School won two awards, including one for the below video report investigating why the district school has no windows and the impact that has on learning. 

Students at the Frederick V. Pankow Center in Clinton Township, Michigan, won with a video report on why career and technical education feels engaging.

Harness Student Government’s Power Potential

Student governments should tackle much more than proms and homecomings. These bodies can produce future leaders and improve student engagement. The XQ school New Harmony High in New Orleans, which opened in 2018, didn’t have a chance to form a student government because its founding class spent so much time in remote learning. Last year, students proposed a student union with representatives from every grade level. Emery Kaczmarek Johnson, now a senior, said he and the other reps drafted a Bill of Rights and worked together, “writing and discussing with staff on exactly where the line was drawn for things like student confidentiality and privacy, late assignment policies, cell phone usage and bathroom break lengths.”

The small charter school’s founding leader, Sunny Dawn Summers, said these conversations led to a serious discussion about which rules had been poorly enforced, which rules had not yet been put in writing and which ones were more about professional practices. The student handbook and internal policies were updated. “We refined our professional development training for staff and we ultimately created a trauma-informed culture guide that is the basis for how we talk to and work with kids as a school,” she said. 

The student union didn’t happen as planned but Summers said a student government is now in formation. But just the existence of the organization isn’t enough, she said, as school leadership support is critical: “It doesn’t survive if just one adult is interested.” 

Engage Students in the Staff Hiring Process

New Harmony High has never hired a staff member without student input. “It’s one of the most beautiful free things you can do that provides a lot of student buy-in for new staff members and gives staff members an accurate representation of who they’re going to teach,” Summers said. 

Interviews are conducted by three of New Harmony High’s 16 student ambassadors. Summers said they typically ask questions about special education and classroom management, as well as what the applicant does for fun plus one secret question.

But not all district schools or charters are allowed, based on local human resources policies, to involve students in prospective staff interviews.

Give Students a Voting Seat on School Boards

Students can serve in a variety of roles on local and state school boards. Fletcher, of SoundOut, has been documenting where they have voting power and where their roles are much more limited. He said Boston is particularly progressive because members of its Student Advisory Council decide on education policy. Maryland allows students to have voting power on local school boards. Philadelphia allowed high school students to serve on its school board in 2018. 

Ilana Drake, a Vanderbilt University student who served on the New York City Department of Education Chancellor’s Student Advisory Council and the Manhattan Borough Student Advisory Council, said being on these boards made a difference. “Students were able to share their varying experiences with regard to education during COVID-19. My peers and I were able to think about restructuring education and how policies could impact outcomes.”

Clifton said the Kentucky Student Voice Team is lobbying the state legislature to “mandate student membership on school boards” in all Kentucky districts. Students can inform education policy in other ways. Rhode Island included students in meetings that led to new graduation requirements through its work with XQ.

Student Voice and Academics

Today’s high school students are growing up in challenging times. They’ve been trained since childhood on how to respond to active shooters, and they spent critical developmental years going to school during a pandemic. They also have more access to information than any other generation. Fletcher said that’s changed how this generation thinks about education.

“They want better learning and teaching and leadership in schools,” he said. “Students know that now. And they’re using language around mental health, and they’re using language around pedagogy. Students, themselves, being able to say, ‘I want interactive learning.’”

Researchers have found that students perform better academically, forge stronger relationships with their peers, and feel safer and more prepared for life when they’re in schools that prioritize the integration of social, emotional and academic development.

The students who attended WLA’s executive leadership retreat this year believe opportunities like this make a difference. “I did slack a little bit when I wasn’t involved in school,” Elijah said, adding that his academic performance went up since becoming a student representative and taking school more seriously. His principal agrees there’s a connection. 

“If students feel a sense of belonging, then all other things fall into place,” Collazo said. “You’ll feel more connected with the teacher and you’ll also feel more connected to doing the things that need to get done in order to excel for yourself and for others.”

Do you want to learn more about how to rethink high school with student voice? The XQ Xtra is a newsletter for educators that comes out twice a month. Sign up HERE.

Beth Fertig is senior education editor at the XQ Institute, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to improving U.S. high schools. She was previously an award-winning veteran journalist at the New York City public radio station WNYC, and was a regular contributor to NPR’s news programs.

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