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When Principals Listen to Students, Schools Can Change

The alleyway behind FAIR, a fine arts school in Minneapolis became a dumping ground during the pandemic. When students came back to school, they found the space totally unusable.

The school administration cleaned it up and painted colorful murals to “reactivate” the space. But when students wanted to actually spend time there during recess, principal Mary Pat Cumming found herself saying no.

“We said no because it was technically winter. The kids raised their voices. There’s a portable basketball hoop they wanted to use,” said Cumming. “And they were completely right. It was 50 degrees outside, and I was sticking to a calendar that didn’t matter anymore.

“I had to ask myself … why am I blocking this?”

It’s a question Cumming has revisited several times as a principal. Now, it’s a guiding principle when her students want to introduce new traditions or make changes in the school.

“Adults always try to figure out the technical details first, and that doesn’t allow kids the creativity and freedom to do things their own way,” she said.

At Cumming’s school, students take the lead in planning events to celebrate Black and Hispanic history, and boost inclusion within a racially diverse student body. Students pick everything—the food, the music, the entertainment—and teachers help them plan backwards from the date of the event. “We give them some design principals and tools on how to execute big events, but they have a lot of autonomy,” said Cumming.

FAIR has also altered its assessment system because of the cues that the administration picked up once students came back from the pandemic. Students would show up for labs but didn’t want to sit through every class. The school has moved to a competency-based system, where students can demonstrate what they’ve learned in different ways. “We are less reliant on the traditional paper test or homework now,” Cumming said.

Eliciting student voice is an effective way for school leaders to gauge how their schools should change. Student representation, when making budgetary decisions or refining safety protocols in the school, can surface issues that administrators aren’t even aware of.

Cynthia Tercero found that students in her school district wanted cold water dispensers at specific sites in their schools, and they wanted more of them.

“We had no idea that filling their water bottles in one part of the campus would make them late for class. This was basic [to solve],” said Cynthia Tercero, the family and community engagement manager at the Phoenix Union High School district in Arizona. Tercero created a system rooted in the idea of participatory budgeting to invite student feedback on what their schools should spend money on. In addition to water dispensers, students have asked for shaded bus stops and ways to learn about new cultures that immigrant students have brought into their schools.

Students who participate in shaping these policies and initiatives need quick validation, Tercero said. “You can’t say yes to everything, like an ice cream social every Friday. But for the stuff you decide to do, you must implement quickly. Students only trust the process when they see it actually changed things.”

The student POV changes solutions

Student voices don’t just highlight unseen problems—they also think of solutions that work for them. For instance, Tercero realized during a safety audit in one of her district’s schools that students had a different definition of safety from hers.

For them, psychological safety and social and emotional connectedness were more important than the physical trappings of metal detectors or locked doors.

“We adopted that definition of safety, and students got spaces where they could decompress and self-regulate their behavior if they were feeling anxious,” Tercero said.

In Cumming’s school, students advocated for a change in the bathroom signs to make them gender neutral and presented a plan to the district around the change. School groups that discuss equity are better attended by student representatives, said Cumming, and they deal directly with issues that impact the school’s climate.

Beth Houf, the principal of Capital City High School in Jefferson City, Mo., has established a student advisory body, which elects 10 members from each grade. Houf relies on the group of 40 students to turn the school, which opened just a year before the pandemic hit, into a place that students want to come to.

“Students wanted to make the school a home, a more attractive place for kids to come to,” said Houf. They have established a mental health club that’s run by students, in collaboration with a counselor. They meet monthly to make sure students are aware of the mental health resources we already have in the school.

The committee within the larger student council, which manages the mental health club, also runs campaigns like “March Kindness”—a play on the popular college basketball tournament—when students are mentored by their peers, or freshmen can train with seniors to hone their study skills.

“Kids want to learn time management from someone closer in age,” Houf said.

Students are also involved in hiring. As students show prospective hires around the school, they make observations to Houf on how they think the candidate would do. They also are part of the interview panel, and get to prepare their own questions for candidates.

“It’s students from all different backgrounds, so that it’s not just a rubber-stamping exercise,” Houf said.

Listening to formal counsel and informal whispers

The structures to elicit student participation differ between schools.

Houf’s 40-member student advisory team meets twice a month and is divided into different committees. With the student body president in tow, the team decides what its vision and objectives are. The advisory team creates surveys based on these vision topics, and keeps the student body informed of the results of the survey, which plans were chosen, and how they’re being implemented.

The system came in handy when a new digital hall pass system was being introduced. The advisory team was able to communicate the benefits of a digital pass to the rest of the school.

“Students are less likely to destroy a system they helped create,” Houf said.

Both Houf and Tercero agree that student advisory teams should be different from the student council—more diverse voices tend to come in through them.

Tercero’s system hinges on having participatory budget coordinators in every school. These teachers help students spread the message about participation, collect feedback and implement viable ideas with support from students who act as PB “champions” in each school. The mini-teams use their school assemblies and advisory periods to inform peers about the proposed ideas and plans around implementation.

Simpifying the language helped.

“Instead of asking them to participate in the budgeting process, I asked them if they wanted a say in how their school was spending its funds,” said Tercero.

Once these ideas come in, the student champions sort through and reject or combine viable ideas. If students want to implement something like shaded bus stops, they also have to figure out the budget to present this at the district level.

Tercero said that the PB champions also make it a point to visit advisory classes for students with special needs and for whom English is a second language, to share the budget agenda and solicit ideas.

Not all demands for change come through such streamlined processes. Last year, a dispute between students led to a disciplinary action from the district, and sparked a student protest on campus. Cumming set up an email and a QR code system for students to register their feedback on changes the administration made, or ideas to improve school policies.

She isn’t getting as many emails as she’d hoped for. But there’s an informal network of information between students and their trusted adults in school, and the administration usually knows now if something’s about to go down.

“Not everything has to be an organized meeting, if students feel they’re being heard,” said Cumming. “There’s a lot of power in the quiet voices.”

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