Tensions were high one winter morning at Lancaster Central High School. There had been word a student was threatening to attack the school, and the rumor was swelling—through texts, social media, and nervous chatter.
But a unique structure for governance in the school helped stop it cold.
Lancaster High, located just east of Buffalo, NY, has a sophisticated system for bringing students, staff, and administrators together to give students a voice and solve problems—and this day it paid off.
The group, called Students Working to Improve the School Setting (SWISS), brings together representatives from a cross-section of the student body, staff, and administration at Lancaster High. The organization takes shape through student government, but representatives are suggested from underrepresented segments of the school such as ESL, special education, and vocational training programs—along with representatives from each organization and interest group, and traditional student leadership organizations. SWISS exists alongside a student union that is also broadly representative, and student recommendations from both groups are taken seriously at the school and district levels.
In this case, once security had fully investigated the threat, SWISS members assembled quickly, worked to track down good information about the story and how it was spreading, got the word out that there was no threat, and calmed the school. “It was blown-out-of-proportion teenage drama, but the important thing is that the climate was not ignored,” says Mark Skowron, the student government adviser and coordinator of student affairs. “Within a few periods in a school with more than 2,000 kids, the rumor was dispelled and life was back to normal. The students had beaten it.”
Skowron says he and the administration believe that such structures promote student engagement in their schools—a growing priority in school policy nationwide. Experts say involvement in school, community, and even national politics or international affairs teaches students important lessons and benefits the school and society.
At Penn State University, Dana Mitra, an education professor and education policy researcher, has done research showing that it pays off when students are involved in education policy. She is author of the book Student Voice in School Reform.
Mitra says administrators are increasingly finding—and research also shows—that student involvement improves school climate and academic quality and raises issues from a student’s perspective that adults might not see.
“The concept of increasing student voice in schools broadens the notion of distributed leadership to include considering young people themselves as capable and valuable members of a school community who can help initiate and implement educational change,” she says.
Involvement in Schools
At Brooklawn Middle School in Parsippany, NJ, student council adviser Lou Miller and the school’s new principal wanted to get students meaningfully involved in school decisions, so they established regular meetings between administrators and student representatives.
“The Principal’s Cabinet was a way to sit down and share concerns and work out solutions, rather than just complaining about them,” Miller says. “It set the tone for an open door for our student council to have relevant and productive discussions with our school administration in which the needs of both sides are fairly considered.”
In Montgomery County, MD, all middle and high school students have an opportunity to vote and elect a student member to the school board.
In Pearland, TX, this year a high school senior will be sitting on the district board (after having ousted a well-entrenched, two-term member to become the youngest elected official in the United States). Mike Floyd says his election to the Pearland Independent School District’s School Board happened because of a youth voter registration drive that netted hundreds of new voters and because of help from a national program that supports candidates younger than 35.
“Young people can not only run for office—they can win an office,” Floyd told a local paper. “I have firsthand experience as a student. I went through the system in Pearland for 13 years. I am the product of that school system—let me show you what works. I think on every school board in this country there should be a student member.”
At Fairbanks Middle School in Milford Center, OH, students in Holli Cline’s active NJHS chapter learn about government and politics firsthand. They’ve held mock elections for national candidates, changed school rules with referendums, and even voted for their favorite candy—in order to promote an understanding of elections and activism and, as Cline puts it, “get them involved.”
One activity had members voting on a student-chosen rule change. After student leaders had an opportunity to campaign using a variety of commonly used tactics, the vote was repeated. Cline invited elected officials to further explain campaigning and elections. “By the end of the activity, we get rules changed at our school, and the kids learn a ton about how to run a campaign,” she says.
Keep in mind that student voice does not have to be limited to the school setting. In Colorado, students have worked on behalf of ballot initiatives that affect their schools. For example, student leaders at Durango High School became interested in a property tax increase referendum because they felt some school resources needed further support from the funds.
They formed a coalition with other student groups, brought in speakers to answer questions, further investigated how the money would be used, and then passed a resolution and got their opinion published in a local paper. The initiative passed, and the students believe that their voice played a role in its success.
To make students aware of elections in Texas, Murphy Middle School NJHS adviser Laura Mullen has students look closely at some of the less positive parts of campaigns. Using advertisements, debates, and news reports, she and her students examine “examples of false promises, catering to audiences, mud-slinging, and outrageous attacks on fellow candidates.”
As they looked at the campaign for mayor locally, one student expressed his concern. “He noticed that one candidate never said what he was going to do, but spent all his commercial time suggesting there were scandals and lies involving the other candidate. The student asked me how we can vote for someone who only criticizes others and complains and doesn’t offer solutions,” Mullen notes.
The most recent presidential election got student attention in many schools. Students were able to express their voice through mock elections at Loveland High School in Colorado, where the student leaders asked representatives from both presidential campaigns to visit the school and speak before the students voted. An area legislator also spoke about the importance of voting.
At Westwood High School in Austin, TX, the student council promoted a mock election in social studies classes, with announcements and posters in the halls. It was part of a yearlong awareness program that included assemblies on the candidates, as well as discussions about key issues and structured social media conversations during the presidential debates.
At Woodland Regional High School in Beacon Falls, CT, student council adviser Chris Tomlin saw a divisive U.S. presidential election coming and wanted to affect how it would play out in their school. “This last presidential election cycle, with its hyper-polarization and political discourse, pushed us further and demanded that we be more diligent than ever before,” says Tomlin, noting that while participating in the election was a priority, he and council members were concerned about how it could affect the climate at the school. In the spring of 2016, his council began working with administrators, the journalism department, and other school leaders to present good information about the presidential candidates in flyers, posters, and speeches. They also sponsored carefully monitored online forums—all in an atmosphere where civility was a priority. “We collectively decided that we wanted to educate the student body by being nonpartisan and encourage students to speak freely and openly about issues,” he says.
Tomlin believes the students became well informed in a civil atmosphere, and excited—and that their excitement spread to the community, where results were publicized. “When we brought the results down to the main office, co-workers asked who had won. They reacted like the students had just elected the next president, even though the real election was the very next day. I just loved how adults were taking the students’ opinions as seriously as the opinions of the country at large,” Tomlin says.
“The mock presidential election project is essential,” Tomlin continues. “After all, student government is a service-leadership group that strives to instill civic virtue through emulating the workings of our federal government. We need to do this every day.”
Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.
A Structured Approach
Schools have an opportunity to use a proven structure for student involvement through Raising Student Voice & Participation (RSVP), a program developed by NASSP and NatStuCo. RSVP, which will be relaunched this coming spring with fresh content, offers detailed guidance that includes a series of student summits, structures for communications with administrators, and ideas for issues to tackle. The summits are run by trained student facilitators who get feedback from all students and then use that information to formulate a plan to present to administrators.
“I think RSVP is important for two reasons,” says Nelson Beaudoin, author of the book Elevating Student Voice: How to Enhance Student Participation, Citizenship, and Leadership. “First of all, it is an easy way to get students to understand that we want to hear what they are thinking. Once they get the idea that we want their views, they really begin to tell us what is important to them. Second, it is a great way to call in the disenfranchised students who are usually uninvolved in school governance.”
Jeff Sherrill, associate director of National Student Council who oversees the RSVP program, says that RSVP is especially important because it provides a way to establish a structure for discussions in school. The program also serves as a way to screen topics that should be put forward. “The current societal climate that has its roots in political discourse has carried into schools, and the RSVP process can provide an effective and structured method for students to generate strategies for having productive and respectful dialogue on differences of opinion about any given issue,” he says. “And it doesn’t have to be political.”
He notes that the RSVP summits can “lay the groundwork that helps students identify specific elements of divisiveness, illuminate witnessed examples of the discourse, and spawn solutions of activities or events, such as moderated forums, where the key issues identified by the students could be meaningfully explored and debated.”
He points out, however, that adult moderators are key, especially when discussing “trigger” issues. “Setting ground rules and sticking to them are essential,” Sherrill says.
NASSP Election Resources
While it’s important for student voices to be heard at all levels ranging from local to national, it is equally important for students to be active in the elections within their very own National Honor Societies and student councils. Use these links from NASSP to get you started with officer elections: