Students as School Leaders: Real Student Engagement Comes from Creating Opportunities for Students to Become Partners in Shaping Their Schools

Article excerpt

It's Saturday morning, the first day of a week-long leadership conference. Eighty-nine high school students are seated on the floor of a conference room staring at a piece of butcher paper covered with phrases related to problems they see at their schools. Dozens of students raise their hands to take a turn at having their ideas listed on the butcher paper.

As I look around the room, every student is engaged; not a single side conversation is taking place. There are no teachers here to ask them to pay attention to the task. These students are focused and they stay this way for four more days. All of this happens without a single teacher--no one to call roll, and no one to assign students grades for their participation.

During the next four days of the conference, high school and college students serve as facilitators for their peers. They lead the high school student delegation in a series of large- and small-group activities to ultimately produce seven educational policy recommendations, which the students will present to California education officials.

As a high school teacher, this is the kind of engagement I wanted for my classroom. Real engagement, the kind of rapt attention that comes from students' genuine interest in the task at hand. The activities that the California Association of Student Councils sponsors engender this kind of student engagement because the organization creates genuine opportunities for students to actively participate in improving their schools.

Creating real opportunities for students to make a difference

Reflections from the director of the current Student Advisory Board on Education, Aaron Feuer, a junior at North Hollywood High School.

"As high school students, it is easy for us to feel disenfranchised and disillusioned by the education system. Many students see themselves as "victims" of schools rather than beneficiaries. Fortunately, programs that give youth a voice in their education can change students' perspectives on school. I know from personal experience that we are motivated to learn when we have a say in our education experiences.

"The California Association of Student Councils Student Advisory Board on Education (SABE) program provides a unique channel for student views. Each fall, a delegation of students from high schools throughout California meets to identify critical issues in our schools, develop potential solutions and present the ideas to the State Board of Education and superintendent of public instruction. Three months later, these students return to address a joint meeting of the Senate and Assembly Committees on Education, convened especially to listen to student recommendations.

"SABE exemplifies true student engagement through civic participation because leaders in education seriously consider our unique perspectives and act upon our recommendations. SABE proposals have led to government action on issues from PE requirements to cell phone policies, and we eagerly seize the opportunity to work with adult officials to improve our education system. When students realize they can make a difference at their schools, their attitude toward education transforms.

"After my first experience as a delegate to SABE, I realized that because I was a partner in shaping my school, I wanted to support the environment that I helped create. I knew that I had to do my part by participating in my classes as a diligent student and encouraging my peers to try their best as well."

CASC youth leadership development model

The California Association of Student Councils youth development model is based on empirical research on fostering resilient students. Research supports integrating protective factors into children's educational environments (Benard, 1997). These factors include creating supportive social environments at schools as well as helping children to have a sense of individual agency, initiative and self-confidence. …