A powerful tool exists that principals can access as a knowledge stream to improve school culture: student voice. Students are our prime customers and having their input on the important decisions on academics and programming should be standard operating procedure for school leaders. How can school leaders gain this critical student perspective?

With everything on our plates, it may seem hard to make the time to speak to students on a regular basis and gain this feedback. I’m here to tell you that listening to student voice should be one of your most important priorities as a school leader. If you put specific programs in place for students to share their ideas, you too can have a school where students are central to decision making.

When James Clemens High School opened in August of 2012, we built our school culture with continuous input from students. I remember distinctly in the beginnings of James Clemens, we had many opportunities to confer with our seniors about how we wanted the school to develop. We had just 87 students in our first senior class. This number lent itself to communication with ease. These students felt comfortable walking to an administrator and saying: “Have you all thought about doing this in a different way? Here is a suggestion.” This was very fulfilling as a leader to hear what the students in our community thought about education.

While we were fortunate to have many confident students who held strong beliefs and cared deeply about their education in those early years of James Clemens, we wanted to be intentional and cultivate a school culture where students would always feel this comfortable sharing their ideas and providing us valuable feedback. To accomplish this, our administrative team built several vehicles for students to provide their much-needed perspectives. Here are two of our best:

Jet PAC (Principal Advisory Committee)

This group is selected by our faculty with input from our feeder middle school. The student group meets quarterly to advise me and our team of administrators on aspects of the school day.

Student Council

Our student council meets every day in a zero period from 7:15–8:00 a.m. to provide support for various leadership activities in our school. I meet with the council on weekly basis in order for them to provide input into the everyday culture of the school.

Any time our administrative team considers changes to any aspect of school programming, we consult our students in these groups to gain their perspectives. One of the biggest changes we made with the help of our students has been to our lunch. Instead of our traditional lunch schedule, we worked with students to create “Refuel,” a power hour lunch concept that offers flexible time for clubs, intervention, tutoring, teacher office hours, and teacher content meetings. Our administrative team met with our Jet PAC and asked them their thoughts on this new endeavor. They were very honest and developed many great ideas that we used. For example, student input led to us to make a critical change of moving our advisory period to earlier in the day; originally, we wanted to include the advisory period with the Refuel time, but students thought it would be too much and would inadvertently take away from each program. Separating the two was absolutely the right decision and has given students more buy-in to both endeavors.

Having input from students has been vital in building a positive school culture at James Clemens High School. Empowering students to share their voices is one of the most important school leadership tools I have at my disposal. I encourage you to make student voice the central focus of your school culture and decision making.

How do you envision student voice in your school? How has student voice impacted the success of your school culture?

Brian Clayton serves as principal of James Clemens High School in Madison, AL. He has served in this capacity since the inception of James Clemens High in August of 2012. He is the 2018 State Principal of the Year in Alabama. Follow him on Twitter @dcjchsSc.

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