Student Voice: Beyond the School Walls

Guest post by Archie Weindruch and James Gomez, seniors, Bettendorf High School, Bettendorf, IA. Archie and James are active in Raising Student Voice and Participation, an NASSP student program.

Over the past four years at Bettendorf High School, we have seen the importance of student voice and student leadership within schools and communities. We have seen the student body bring forth refreshing and new ideas for our school, and we have seen these ideas come to fruition right before our eyes. This is one of the most exciting parts about the organization that we have here at Bettendorf High School called RSVP, or Raising Student Voice and Participation.

Furthermore, we have seen student leaders come together through RSVP to help the community outside our own high school. We have seen students look past their own needs to get involved through community service. We are firm believers that student voice and student leadership can be beneficial in a multitude of ways.

Students are opinionated; in order for them to share their voice, you must not only have the door open, but ensure that they know it is always open.

However, time constraints make the notion that you can meet with every student and still fulfill your other obligations unrealistic. In our school, one solution is RSVP. It consists of student facilitators and a Leadership Team with members from each grade level. RSVP sends one or two facilitators to record the student voice of each advisory classroom during summits.

When faced with a voracious student who has ideas to share, RSVP receives them warmly by providing immediate feedback and an action plan, which could include explaining existing solutions, requests for further information, or scheduling a meeting with appropriate faculty. Providing channels for suggestions to reach your office and move beyond it are the cornerstone of an educational facility with an active and represented student voice.

In RSVP, there is never a student who is turned away if he or she wishes to be a facilitator. During their freshman year, each new facilitator is trained on how to lead summits, or student-led discussions taking place during schoolwide advisories. Right from the beginning, RSVP brings out the leadership potential in each facilitator. Those students who show the most leadership potential are asked to step up and be a part of the Leadership Team.

The Leadership Team organizes RSVP within the school. The Leadership Team also attends, hosts, and presents at other various leadership events and activities in and outside of the school. Through RSVP, the voice and ideas of the whole student body are heard by the administration and put to work. These ideas are taken from the summits, which are held to take student ideas, gather feedback, and give information. In this way, RSVP works as a mouthpiece for the students to the administration and vice versa.

Here is a look at how the first summit works:

  • An icebreaker. Starting with an energizing activity encourages participation.
  • Ground rules are established. Ask students to come up with summit rules, such as “raise your hand,” “no personal attacks,” and “stay on task.” The facilitator then asks the class if it approves the list of rules, and can reference them, if necessary, to keep the summit running smoothly.
  • “What do you like about our school?” This question creates a positive tone, and knowing what the students enjoy helps you reinforce ideas that benefit your school and sparks thoughts about varied building-wide topics.
  • “What would you like to see in your school?” This is the meat of the summit; improvements are suggested. Facilitators are trained to probe into nonspecific answers by asking the students to elaborate on the aspects of what they want accomplished. Sometimes, facilitators must gently spur discussion if it flounders.
  • Students vote. With three votes for each category, the most important Likes and the most important Improvements, every student has a quantifiable voice. Suggestions and respective votes are then recorded by the facilitator.
  • The final results. The Lead Team collects all the results, tallies them, and shares the voice of the entire student body with the principal. We then discuss the existing and potential solutions and begin the process of enacting them.

A few weeks later, we hold Summit Two, during which the top concerns from Summit One are communicated to the students along with the action plans to address them. We request further details and ideas, where applicable, such as “What are the class bonding activities you want to see?” in response to a call for more senior-only events. We explain how to take advantage of other desired programs, such as ACT and college preparation. This year, we also faced many questions and complaints revolving around our new math curriculum. In response, a third summit is being planned to explain in depth its causes and methods. At all levels, communication with the student body is key to hearing and encouraging student voice.

Student voice is the manifestation of pursuing positive interactions and connections in every moment. When you take that initiative and let others know that it can actually accomplish change, more people join the campaign to express it. Student voice is an intention and a mindset—a habit that we must work into our daily lives, for, on the grandest scale, we are all students.

Archie Weindruch and James Gomez are seniors at Bettendorf High School in Bettendorf, IA. Jimmy Casas serves as the school’s principal, and he will join Patrick Larkin (Burlington Public Schools, MA) and Jason Markey (East Leyden High School, IL) speaking on “Leading Change in Schools” at Ignite ’15.

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