Giving Students a Voice in School Improvement

Guest post by Kasey Teske

In secondary schools, the greatest untapped resource is our students. Most of our students care deeply about school and have numerous ideas about how to improve their campus community. But how often do we, as principals, involve students in our school improvement efforts? Do the students in our school even know our improvement priorities? Are they allowed to give input and help create our school improvement plans? I submit that the more principals give students a voice in their school, the more improvement will move in the right direction.

At Canyon Ridge High School in Idaho, we have implemented a student-driven school improvement process. What we have learned is that by engaging students in continuous improvement, we have fostered a greater commitment to the process. Simply put, student input produces more output.

Here are some of the lessons we have learned throughout this process:

Organize a passionate, committed team of staff members and students. When we started this process, our first step was to assemble a great team. Our goal was to have a group that represented the diversity of our staff and student body to ensure varied perspectives and voices. For the staff team, we sought out staff members from multiple disciplines who had an interest in working with students on school culture and improvement. For the students, we held an open application process that included an interview. We asked candidates questions in order to assess their leadership qualities and desire to improve the school. In the end, we selected six teachers and six students from different disciplines and subpopulations. Each member had a deep passion for the school and was committed to making it better. We held at least one monthly meeting for the entire school year.

Conduct a comprehensive student voice survey. Our first task was to conduct a student voice survey. We wanted to know what all of our students thought about the climate and culture of the school and use this data to identify several high-leverage improvement priorities. When getting feedback from the entire student body, it is important to select the right survey for your school’s needs. Whichever one you choose, be certain that the survey instrument is valid and reliable so that it accurately measures what you want. The most effective option is to select a survey based on some type of proven school improvement model, like this one from YouthTruth, which allows customization and provides a quick turnaround of results with online reporting and data analysis features. Many of these types of surveys cost money to use, so you need to have funds available to purchase them. Another option is to design the survey yourself, but developing a survey is time-consuming. If you decide to go with this option, have the staff and student leadership team complete the survey themselves, before distributing it to the general population, to ensure that it clearly asks and measures what is intended.

Collaboratively identify possible improvement priorities. Once we received the results of the student survey, our team reviewed the data and worked together to identify potential school improvement priorities. Though the staff was there to help, we let the students on the team select six to eight possibilities to share with the rest of the student body. Our motto was: “The adults are to guide; the students are to decide.” Next, our student leaders presented the ideas to the rest of the students during our advisory period and led discussions to get their feedback. Students provided additional insights and input and brainstormed possible solutions. Each advisory class had a student scribe who recorded the feedback and submitted it to the student and staff leadership team for further analysis.

Give students ownership of some of the improvement priorities. After we clearly identified our priorities, we allowed our student leadership team members to select and own no more than three improvement priorities each. For each of the priorities, we formed an “action team” and had students and staff choose what they wanted to work on according to their passion. With adult guidance, students directed these actions teams to create and implement plans to improve their selected priority. The actions teams met at least once a month to mark progress and adjust implementation plans as needed. What we learned is that giving students ownership increased motivation and engagement, and ultimately led to greater advancements in school improvement. Students became invested in the process and wanted to see their plans come to fruition.

If you are looking to shape school culture for the better, consider a student-driven process of school-improvement planning. Not only will you be pleased with the improvements in school culture, you will be impressed and motivated by your students’ ideas, energy, and commitment. What are your experiences with using student voice for school improvement?

Kasey L. Teske, PhD, is the principal of Canyon Ridge High School in Twin Falls, ID, and also serves on the NASSP Board of Directors. He was the 2017 Idaho Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @principalteske.

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