At Columbia High School (CHS) in Columbia, IL, improving school climate goes hand in hand with the Raising Student Voice & Participation (RSVP) program. Embarking on a plan to embrace student voice has brought about big changes.
Our school draws students from the area in southern Illinois bordering the Mississippi River. Columbia supports a population of 12,700 residents. We are a balance of a bedroom community, local small businesses, and farming, with an average commute time to downtown St. Louis, MO, of about 20 minutes. Monroe County’s population is 30,000 people. Our unit school district has a total population of 2,012 students comprising 93.3 percent white, 0.6 percent black, 2.5 percent Hispanic, 0.7 percent Asian, 10.3 percent special education, and 12.3 percent low-income students.
Even though these demographics demonstrate that we are an upper-middle-class community that lacks a diverse population, our students face high levels of stress. They come from caring but sometimes demanding families that have very high expectations. This culture has the potential to foster anxiety, depression, and/or low self-confidence among students.
Our student council saw a need to address these issues, and they explored the RSVP program. They were excited to get trained to see if this would help alleviate some of these problems, which in turn would improve our school climate.
Giving Students a Voice
I took a group of seven freshmen to the LEAD Chicago Conference in February 2016 to learn more about this program. As it turned out, this group of students became the foundation of RSVP at CHS over the past four years.
Our students could not stop talking about how this program was going to work at school, so we brainstormed ideas during our five-hour trip home. RSVP works through a series of three schoolwide summits, usually held in classrooms. Students gather to share their observations of community issues, their recommendations for improvements, and a framework for how to put those recommendations into action. By the time we arrived in Columbia, the group had decided to speak with the teachers at the next staff meeting to begin gaining support from our administration. They wanted to hold the first summit as soon as possible.
The students held a meeting with our administrative team, which gave us its undivided support. At that time, we planned our session, assigned our students to staff departments, and prepared our first summit. After the teacher meeting, we found that they were as excited as the students to be able to voice their opinions! The administrative team reviewed the students’ ideas and determined how they could help support the staff in areas they had identified that needed changes.
We shared our ideas with the student council and asked for volunteers to be on the RSVP team. We also asked anyone interested from our student body to participate as well. After we had a list of students, we planned our training program for them and identified a time that would work to hold the first summit.
Our RSVP team was creative with publicizing our first summit by writing with chalk on the cafeteria windows and the sidewalks outside, and added information to the daily announcements to create schoolwide anticipation and raise awareness of our first summit. The day had finally arrived, and we were set!
The Road to Change
The focus of the first summit is voice. The goal is for students to convene in small groups to discuss and prioritize the community issues they feel need attention. The summit wraps up when the groups give their lists to the RSVP student leadership team, which allows the team to determine the top issues to share with the principal for the next summit’s focus. Once the first summit concludes, the leadership team meets and identifies the top 10 changes and “likes” quickly. We post class results in the cafeteria for all to see. It is always fun and interesting to watch students read through what other classes and students said. The RSVP team then meets with administration to identify what changes to implement before the school year ends.
The second summit revolves around recommendations for action. Here, students are presented with the top three issues that were identified by multiple groups from the first summit and are asked to recommend actions to address them. At CHS, our leadership team meets with our administrative team after we have reviewed the top three items that our students have chosen to change. (There have been times that we have presented the top five items.) After we agree on what can be changed, we then come up with our Civic Action Plan for our final summit, with approval from our administrators. Students usually give great feedback after the second summit and are pleased to see that someone cared about what they had to say.
Taking what we’ve learned in the previous two summits and implementing positive change is the focal point for our third summit. During this stage, our aforementioned Civic Action Plan is reviewed with our leadership class so they can have input and also identify and create a plan that they think will work. After all options are reviewed, the plan is shared with our students so they may provide suggestions. These ideas are given back to our leadership team and leadership class so they can iron out the details of the plan.
At that time, the students identify what data needs to be collected. Then we distribute assignments and try to pinpoint potential obstacles. We form committees, and the groups follow through with their tasks. The administrators meet with our team one last time and agree on what changes are going to be made and design a timeline of when these changes will take place. In an ideal situation, this process is completed within the third quarter of the school year, but some projects have taken more time. We celebrate as each change takes place, recognizing that our students have helped make it happen!
We now have developed a new tradition at our school: We hold our annual RSVP Summit 1 at the beginning of the second semester. This ensures that our ninth-grade students have settled in and have had enough school experience to develop an opinion about it. It also gives us time to recruit new students and to complete our training so our first summit will be ready to go.
Impact on School Climate
So, how has RSVP improved our school climate?
Students have stated on our annual student council evaluation at the end of the year that this is one of the best things that has happened at our school. Students see change taking place because of their input. And I have no problem recruiting students to be leaders. This program has built self-confidence in students who would have never thought they could lead. Instead, they find themselves wanting to participate every year. Students actually contact me at the beginning of the year asking if they can be on the team.
As an added bonus, when we have motivational speakers visit, I share the results with them. This has helped the speakers get a good picture of what our students identify as problems and changes they would like to make. They can more easily tailor their message to our student body, and as a result, the students are more receptive.
What we have found over the past four years is that our students look forward to this time during which they can actually voice their opinions. There are always changes being made, and they like to be able to talk about it with their peers in class and have teachers listen. They also enjoy that we review previous changes over the past four years—changes that reflect their voices. There are always some negative voices, but most students take this time to heart and sincerely appreciate getting this opportunity.
Teachers notice that students complain less because they now have a better understanding of what can and cannot be changed at CHS. The students have learned problem-solving and now know how to approach our administration with student issues. They have learned compromise and how to negotiate issues. They have discovered that our administration and staff want to hear from them and will truly listen. I cannot stress this enough: Listen! Listen to students’ voices. Each year, students share an opinion about something that I would never assume they would think of. Sometimes that’s all our students need—adults to just listen.
Something as simple as holding summits during which students have the opportunity to speak up has made a significant difference at our school over the past four years. I hope that after reading this article you will consider bringing RSVP to your school to witness the amazing things this program can do!
Linda Pickett is student council adviser at Columbia High School in Columbia, IL, and a 2015 Warren E. Shull recipient.
To learn more about the RSVP program and how you can get it started in your school, visit www.NatStuCo.org/RSVP.