Students with illustrations of thought bubbles over their heads.It has always been an important part of a principal’s role to support and enable students to become leaders. However, as Keith Neigel wrote a decade ago in “Building Leadership Capacity in Students,” student leaders were frequently “relegated to planning dances and pep rallies, discussing the quality of cafeteria offerings, and organizing fundraising events.”

Today, the role of the principal in facilitating student leadership is evolving due to a variety of factors, including:

  • A focus on personalized learning and proficiency-​based learning, leading to an increase in student voice in curricular decisions
  • Advances in technology have enabled students to take more active roles in schools, both substantively and on the technical end
  • A rise in social media, which has changed the way that we all communicate and organize
  • An increased understanding of the importance of creating thoughtful global and local citizens, resulting in secondary schools frequently sending students out into the community
  • More mentorship opportunities, enabling students to study directly from older students or experts
  • Increased competitiveness in college admissions, requiring students to demonstrate leadership experience to get ahead

When it comes to facilitating school leaders, a best practice for principals is to create exciting and meaningful ways to empower students. As Neigel says, “Empowerment is the key to students’ social/emotional health largely because it can provide meaning and relevance in their lives. The ability to have some ownership of and be able to change their world is a powerful thing. The message is clear: Giving students a voice in determining the quality of their education is central to school reform.” Leadership used to be mainly about who was standing in front, but now it’s often student decision makers who are recognized as leaders as well.

Capitalize on Personalized Learning Plans 

Dave Younce, superintendent of Mill River Union High School (MRU) and Rutland South Supervisory Union in North Clarendon, VT, is working to increase student voice because he believes, “A key role of every principal is to create good citizens, and so it is increasingly important to help students feel empowered in regard to both their academic lives and the decisions facing them in their futures.”

Students at MRU work with teachers and advisers to create personalized learning plans in which they design electronic portfolios each year to create goals, collect evidence of progress, reflect on their performance, and explore careers and college. Tyler Weideman, assistant principal of MRU, says, “Creating personalized learning plans helps students connect their secondary-school experience to their future. These plans help students understand that they are the key decision makers in their learning. In addition, the reflection piece of these personalized plans is an excellent space for students to think about who they are as young leaders.”

Younce says that in his role as superintendent, he has seen a shift in responsibility with more student-led planning. Letting students take the lead gives adults an increased sense of confidence in their students’ abilities, and it gives students increased ownership and pride. The school is also working on a shift to a proficiency-based curricular model to allow students to have more power over their learning. MRU is also moving toward teaching skills like self-assessment, time management, and tenacity. Weideman believes that the changes will cultivate classrooms where there are multiple opportunities for students to self-assess. Plus, the revamped system would give students an increased choice in mediums for demonstrating proficiency.

MRU is also in the beginning stages of implementing a restorative practice program to mitigate negative behavior and increase student leadership opportunities. Staff and students are engaging in model restorative circles to see if using this process would help rule-breakers talk through issues. Restorative circles would not entirely displace traditional school discipline, but school leaders believe encouraging reflection is an important step. “Restorative practice allows students to see the wider implications of their decisions,” Weideman says. “Teaching student leaders to help their peers examine the consequences of their actions may help all students become more successful.”

The school maximizes the impact of more traditional student leadership opportunities by supporting students in Key Club and student council as they push to increase community service work. These organizations have worked with food banks, sponsored holiday drives, and aided local charities to keep service at the center of their work.

Younce is further bolstering student leadership by supporting a plan to add two student representatives to the MRU School Board. Students may be excluded from executive sessions, but under this plan they would otherwise be regular contributors along with adult members of the school board. “Including students in board discussions allows adult board members to hear directly from those who are most affected by policy decisions,” Younce says. “In addition, as students involved in these processes learn more about how things get done and how board members work around constraints, they learn how to be the kind of leaders who can truly better their communities.”

Students Create Their Own Curriculum

When students at Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning (SAEL) in Grass Valley, CA, pushed for more autonomy, Principal Erica Crane and the staff developed a class that allows students to choose a topic, create goals and deadlines, and define their own targets during 20 percent of their class time. To create curriculum, however, students needed to learn how to assess educational requirements and use creativity to reach standards and demonstrate competency. The program was modeled off a similar one at Google, helping to further prepare students for today’s workplace. “When students were truly in charge, this ownership drove them. They set high standards and exceeded them,” Crane says.

Crane uses Facebook and Twitter to highlight student work and achievement and encourages students to use these posts to comment on and support each other’s successes. She has also made the choice to occasionally give kids supervised access to the school’s social media accounts, stating, “Kids have used our Instagram account to post photos and connect with potential supporters and donors in conjunction with an adventure-based minicourse with great results.” Students have also used the school Facebook account to launch a mapping project. Crane believes that social media is a natural way to integrate student voice. “They know the platforms better than we do, and they know how to optimize the results of their use,” she says. “If we make sure students are careful digital citizens and give them some room, they can do amazing work.”

SAEL uses an advisory model called “crews.” Crews are frequently student led. Teachers are provided with suggested curriculum, but kids can advocate for certain topics. In one case this year, students wanted to have some difficult conversations about contentious issues. So, student leaders suggested they work on debate and discussion techniques, and then students helped to facilitate the conversations. In addition, crews in the upper grades meet with and run lower grade advisory groups, providing important mentorship opportunities and bolstering school culture.

Crane and the staff at SAEL ask students to create products to solve real problems as a way to empower them as change agents. This year, ninth-grade students at the school conducted fieldwork research and spoke with experts about how electronics affect them. The result? Students wrote pledges after researching the environmental, cultural, and economic effects of electronics. Students even dissected cellphones and used their work to petition for change in the larger community.

Creating Realistic Solutions

When students brought up a complaint about cleanliness in public spaces to Brady Smith, co-director at the James Baldwin School in New York, NY, he chose to support student leaders by suggesting they engage in action research. The school initiated a student-led inquiry cycle in which students spoke with custodians and peers, looked at staffing and budget data, and worked to create realistic solutions to improve school spaces. The project ended with a “multiconstituency agreement that truly created change and put positive power in the hands of students,” according to Smith. Students learned that they could undo things they didn’t like and that they could work around constraints and roadblocks. Smith believes increasing student empowerment has even had a positive effect on student attendance.

Smith uses student-led conferences instead of parent-teacher conferences to give students a chance to practice leadership skills and student voice. The school believes such presentations allow students an authentic way to practice public speaking, create technological aids, and gather evidence. “Putting students in charge of these conferences increases pride and ownership of the process, which in turn increases both parent and community involvement,” Smith says.

James Baldwin School has also undergone an intensive process to earn the right to use performance-based assessment tasks instead of high-stakes standardized tests to demonstrate academic competency. Students spend a full semester working on these standards-based projects with an academic adviser and conduct a final presentation of their work. Staff believes this helps students learn how to defend their ideas and assess their own progress—abilities necessary for leaders beyond secondary school. The school invites outside community members to interact with students as they complete these tasks to deepen the experience.

Smith and his co-director at the James Baldwin School have worked together with staff on another project to increase consensus-based decision making. By combining weekly town hall meetings where advisory groups meet in both smaller and whole-school groups with a democratic school structure, students get to speak about and vote on some school policies. Town halls are operated by students and are run with a carefully designed set of protocols and shared community expectations. Smith believes the key is to “find places in which students can be authentically involved, and not simply brought to decisions that adults have already directly made.”

Going Forward 

Younce believes that the push to empower all students naturally taps into larger issues such as equity and morality. “To increase both equity and student empowerment, you have to work on people’s hearts. It’s all about whose voice is heard and who feels they have a right to be heard,” he says. “When we let students know they will be heard, their confidence increases, and when leadership starts increasing equity, a principal is truly making a difference.”

Jodie Stewart-Ruck is dean of students at Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon, VT.

Sidebar: Making It Work

Enact an effective leadership program

The principal’s role in supporting student leadership is evolving as technology, curriculum reform, and new research change our schools. Consider these tips for principals in implementing an effective school leadership program: 

  • Empower students to make decisions. This will facilitate and hone their leadership skills.
  • Enable students to take leadership roles not only in their schools, but in the larger community.
  • Focus on leadership projects that excite and engage both students and administrators.

Sidebar: NASSP and Student Leadership

NASSP promotes the intellectual growth, academic achievement, and leadership development of students. NASSP founded and administers four student leadership programs. 

National Honor Society (NHS). NHS is the premier organization established to recognize outstanding high school students. More than just an honor roll, NHS serves to recognize those students who have demonstrated excellence in the areas of scholarship, leadership, service, and character.

National Junior Honor Society (NJHS). NJHS is the premier organization established to recognize outstanding middle level students.

National Elementary Honor Society (NEHS). NEHS was established in 2008 by NASSP in partnership with the National Association of Elementary School Principals Foundation to recognize students in grades 4-6 for their outstanding academic achievement and personal responsibility.

National Association of Student Councils (NASC). NASC provides robust and trusted resources that enrich and support middle level and high school student councils. 

Sidebar: Personalize the School Experience

Raising Student Voice and Participation (RSVP), a program of NASSP’s National Association of Student Councils (NASC), helps student councils engage an entire student body to share ideas and plan actions to address school or community needs.

Through the program, student council members, with the support of their principal and adviser, are trained in the RSVP process. They organize and facilitate student summits to identify their key issues and concerns. Student council leaders can invite other student body members interested in addressing the issues to serve on the RSVP Leadership Team. This team works together to create civic action plans and sponsor one or more projects designed to solve the problem identified from the summits. 

An implementation guide is available for NASC-affiliated schools through the NASC Store.

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