Raising Student Voices to Strengthen School Communities

Guest post by Robert Nolting

For many students, school seems to be done to them, not with them. At Victor J. Andrew High School (VJA) in Tinley Park, IL, we make it a point to raise a student’s voice not only as a spotlight, but a headlight—leading the way, we carry on throughout the year. At VJA, this starts with our Senior Leaders and Principal’s Advisory groups. 

The Principal’s Advisory is a group that meets biweekly with the principal, associate principal, and superintendent. Its main function is to provide student perspective on a variety of issues. However, the members’ value is not only their input, but their ability to be part of the entire process of change. Annually, the Principal’s Advisory group selects an objective for the year based on discussing their concerns, their hopes, and even our school improvement plan. At that time, they set aside time to discuss that topic throughout the year. We follow a Study-Plan-Act (SPA) model. The “study” phase includes reading, watching YouTube videos, and sharing ideas about how to go about change. We even study another school that we feel “does it right” and invite them to our campus to get their feedback. Then, around second semester, we move into the “plan” phase—and get the students involved in working with idea generation, problem-solving, and designing timelines.

At the end of this effort, we turn to the “act” phase. Most of act is adults working, but we consistently revisit the actions taken to determine if we’ve accomplished our original goals. Since 2011, our advisory group has done the following: 1) revised our bell schedule to incorporate an advisory period; 2) designed our 1:1 Chromebook implementation; 3) increased co-curricular participation; 4) developed an empathy initiative based on our increasing diversity; and 5) increased student attendance at athletic/fine arts events.

A great complement to the advisory group, our Senior Leaders are a representative group of senior students who are leaders in academic programs, athletics, fine arts, and competitive activities. However, they have a slightly different mission—to make the current school year special. These students begin by selecting a theme, one that both embodies the identity of the senior class while also challenging the school to achieve something great. Then, they create opportunities to celebrate that theme throughout the year. In the past seven years, the themes have included Legacy, Unity, Togetherness, Excellence, Change, Boldness, and Impact. Those words have created things that have become the backbone of our school, such as:

  • A Legacy Wall to honor our senior classes through pictures of all 500+ seniors doing things together
  • Senior Last Day, which brings their class together for one last celebration before they graduate
  • Sunrise/Sunset, which involves seniors opening the year in August at 5 a.m. to watch the sunrise and closing the year at night in May to watch the sunset
  • “Golden Bolts” Awards, which recognizes ALL stakeholders to impact others

The Senior Leaders also become ambassadors and spokespeople, and are ultimately accountable for a great year. And it works! Each year we reach new heights with community service hours, cocurricular participation, AP Scholars, College Scholarships … these are all things our kids can control and strive to attain. Additionally, other groups have followed suit—Student Council, NHS, and Class Councils have embraced the concept of student voice in how they lead their programs.

With all the good that comes with the way student voice has impacted VJA, the one criticism I annually get (from a small few) is “you give the kids too much (power, control, influence, etc.).”

To that I say, YES, I DO!” And I would not have it any other way. When you give students an active voice in their school, the results speak for themselves.

What new opportunities can you create for students to raise their voices and get more involved in strengthening their school community?

If you want any exemplars from the programs above, reach out to me at rnolting@d230.org.

Robert Nolting is a principal at Victor J. Andrew High School in Tinley Park, IL. He has been principal for nine years, a director for the Illinois High School Association, and the 2016 Illinois Principal of the Year.

 

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