“Student voice” is a distinct buzz phrase in education today. While it implies verbal expression, it’s really all about listening to what students have to say. What programs have principals developed to effectuate student voice? We convened a roundtable in late October to explore this issue, including Dwight Carter, principal of New Albany High School in Ohio; Jimmy Casas, a retired principal who is currently a senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education in Rexford, NY; and Sandy Hillman, retired assistant principal of Center Grove High School in Greenwood, IN. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: Why do you think student voice is important?

Carter: Students are major stakeholders in our school community. The more we engage them to use their voice, the better we can serve them, and the better relationships we’ll have with them. In the end, we all want the same thing, which is to increase student progress and student achievement, and since students are a part of that, their voices are important. They can then embrace the things that we are doing, and we can create the best learning environment for them.

Hillman: Students need to feel empowered in their learning environment. They want to feel they have input in the decisions that impact the daily environment of their schools. By allowing their voices to be heard on a variety of topics, students will have a better understanding of the school’s daily and long-term goals. Apathy toward learning has been an issue for both students and educators alike from time immemorial. If students feel they are valued and have a voice, they will be more willing to enter into a partnership with the school to improve learning.

Casas: I believe that every student deserves to be a part of something great and should have an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy. When students are given a genuine opportunity to express their thoughts and share a respected voice to the conversations that impact their academics, school policy, facilities, and school culture, great things can happen. We know that students who feel valued and appreciated will always give you more and do more than what is expected. After all, our students are our most precious commodity. I often remind others that without our students, we would not have a job.

Levin-Epstein: Why has student voice taken on greater importance in the last five to 10 years?

Carter: I think it’s more generational. The students we serve now are Generation Z. Generation Z has grown up in a world that is all about choice, options, availability, and access. For example, they can create and make their own shoes; they can design their own clothes. They can choose all types of food options. They can choose when, how, and what types of music they listen to. They don’t have to just turn on the radio and be subjected to what’s heard; they can create their own radio station. They’re creating their own TV; they’re creating their own messaging just through the way technology is today. They have access to information across the world. I guess it has retrained or rewired their brains to not just expect choice, but to embrace it. That’s what they’ve grown up with. That’s not good or bad, it’s just the reality of the way Generation Z is. So now, they’re much more active in explaining and describing what they want, how they want things to go.

Our job as educators is to help guide them through the vast amount of choices they have and [explore] how to use their own voice to best meet their needs, but also to meet the goals, standards, and expectations that we have for them at school. It’s a very interesting process learning how kids learn—how kids see the world today and how they have access to so much. This creates challenges in a lot of school systems to identify how to do what’s best for kids, allow kids to have some voice and choice in the situation, but still provide the constraints to guide that decision-making process.

Hillman: With so much information at their fingertips, students can become disconnected to important happenings in the world. Their world is often the life they live on social media. To counter this phenomenon, schools must up the game on relevance to show students how they can actively engage in the face-to-face environment experienced in six or seven hours of school each day. By giving them choices in the classroom and a voice in the larger school arena, we can increase their level of engagement and connectedness. We can channel their creativity through a lens that demonstrates the interconnectedness of various facets of the school.

Choices have consequences, and frequently, students are not used to thinking through the process of how these choices play out. They may want to have an open campus for lunch, but haven’t really thought through how that would work considering the distance to eating establishments and the state mandates for the length of a school day. Through developing strong relationships with our students, but still honoring their voice by listening and then providing information, we should be able to create vehicles where students can activate needed change. As in all other societal issues, open and honest communication is the key, which is desperately needed in today’s world.

Casas: I’d like to think as educators we understand the value that our students can bring to the table. As teachers and school leaders continue to evolve in their craft and their own learning, I think we are beginning to understand that our students are willing to do more when it comes to owning their learning. We don’t have to do it all. No longer is the teacher the only source of knowledge and information in the classroom. With an abundance of technology at our fingertips, the audience is no longer only the classroom teacher and classmates, but there is an unlimited world for students to share their work with when it comes to telling their story or sharing their passion on the internet or social media.

I also think that this generation of students has a good awareness of social justice issues and has proven to be more active in discussing and participating in more meaningful dialogue. Again, with easier access to others around the world and a climate that seems to be more socially accepting of such global connections, I think the opportunities for students to share their voice, express their opinions, and collaborate with a wider audience are desirable and rewarding for both students and teachers when it comes to tapping a student’s potential for learning.

Levin-Epstein: Is there a kind of structure that can be created to make sure student voice is heard?

Carter: We have a couple things in place. I have created a student advisory board of students from all four grade levels. I meet with them on a quarterly basis, and we talk about concerns, things to possibly address, changes they want to see happen. I work with them, share with the staff, and then we’ll take steps as necessary. We have a system called House, which is like an advisory, and we have House leaders who work closely with our House deans. The House deans are the teachers, and they have a lot of input on things they would like to see happen at school.

We have a number of clubs and other extracurricular activities where kids have ideas, so they’ll present those to me and the administrative team. For example, one of the things that students want to do is decorate our staircases. This was presented to me by National Honor Society. They submitted a proposal, which I shared with the administration team. We’ve reviewed and approved the proposal, so the students will get to work on completing the project.

Hillman: Our school has utilized a process called RSVP (Raising Student Voice and Participation) since 2006. This process involves three all-school “summits” and gives every student in the school a chance to say what is on their mind and what needs to change. For us, this process has proven to be more effective than the traditional advisory group because the onus for implementing the change does not just lie with the adults in the school, but is shared with the students. If we can move students from “griping” about what is wrong to actually developing an action plan on how to make an improvement, it’s a win for all.

In the RSVP process, ideas are brainstormed by all students and then prioritized by a leadership team, which is composed of half student council members and other students who represent a diverse part of our student body. This 16-member team meets with administration to discuss their top priorities. At these meetings, information is shared concerning the background of specific rules or limitations to help students develop an understanding of various operational policies. Then, when they hear someone from their peer group comment that a certain policy is “dumb” or “unfair,” they have some background information to share. They are also well-equipped to dispel rumors about pending new rules being considered. This team develops a civic action plan to address one or two major changes desired. Once approved by the administration, the plan is taken back to the student body so they can get involved in making the plan work.

Casas: In the 2005–06 school year, Bettendorf High School became the first RSVP chapter in the state of Iowa. The RSVP process provided an avenue for the entire student body to be empowered by giving every student in the school a voice when it came to bringing about positive change to their school community. We held summits throughout the year in which students led discussions revolving around four main themes—academics, school policy, facilities, and school climate. Students were given the opportunity to share all of the great things going on in their school, as well as share ideas for improving specific aspects related to the four categories mentioned above. The results were then reviewed by a 20-member lead team and narrowed down to a top 10 list of what was going well and what areas we could focus on to lead improvements.

We would then host a follow-up summit to narrow the list down before determining our final RSVP topics to address for the year with the help of students, staff, administration, and in some cases, the school board. Topics over the years included more voice in curriculum offerings; a broader cellphone policy; the creation of a service letter; updating facilities, including bathrooms and a student commons area; and student leadership exchanges with other schools, to name just a few.

Levin-Epstein: Do these programs exist outside of the student government organization?

Carter: We also have a student council that has really transformed into a student government. [While before] it had been more of a dance-planning committee, now they’re much more actively involved in the operation of the school. They’re gaining a lot more traction in terms of a place for students to share concerns or ideas, and then those ideas or concerns are brought to us as an administrative team. So, there are a number of chances for students to have a voice in the school, which is what I like. The challenge, though, is how to have all these different ideas going toward the same direction.

Hillman: RSVP is organized by the student government, who trains the facilitators for the summits and oversees the implementation of the civic action plan. The leadership team is composed of nonstudent council members with, hopefully, some underrepresented groups in the school. It is a challenge to get those groups involved, in that they often feel disenfranchised and powerless. This is the key to making RSVP work—choosing a diverse group to serve on the leadership team. Our school also has a President’s Council, which acts as a coordinating group for school activities. Through both of these groups, we are able to establish strong relationships with our students to increase their feeling of empowerment in their learning and in their future, as well as compassion for fellow students. These ways of promoting the importance of student voice will lead them to appreciate the value of a connected citizenry working toward a common goal. This important concept should transfer to their adult leadership roles in their future communities.

Casas: Anyone could be a part of RSVP [at Bettendorf High School]. This was a nonelected position separate from student council and student government (there was some crossover with students being involved in both, but many students were not), leading to a very diverse group of students who wanted to be involved in leading change in their school. Overall, we typically had somewhere between 150 and 200 students involved, serving as either an advisory member or a lead team member. The lead team consisted of 20 students, five from each grade level 9–12. The lead team met with the building principal and adviser during lunch every three weeks. The agenda was set in conjunction with the administration, but the meetings were all run by the students. Trainings were held each year at the beginning of the school year to review process and to train the students on the process to follow during advisory seminars.

We also held mini-summits, providing an opportunity to gather information from all 150–200 students in a more formal way regarding topics that impacted the overall culture of the school. Over the course of 10 years, BHS trained more than 50 Iowa schools in the RSVP process, including hosting our own leadership conference to assist other schools that wanted to start their own chapter. The leadership opportunities that were provided to students who were part of RSVP provided a means for many students to develop the necessary skills to build their confidence in public speaking and to lead their peers through an effective change process.

Editor’s note: RSVP is a program of National Student Council. To learn more, visit www.NatStuCo.org/rsvp.