As you drive up the frontage road to Minnetonka High School in Minnesota, you see a brand-new crosswalk—complete with flashing lights and sound—that connects to the school. Even though this may not be a revolutionary idea, it employs the latest technology available, implemented in the fall of 2018. It has made a major impact for our community, in more ways than you might think.

In celebrating this win for the community, we must take a look back. In the Minnetonka Public Schools, we developed Student Innovation Teams (SITs) in 2016–17. SITs work much like the way that the professional learning community (PLC) movement addressed an important need for organized collaboration around student achievement data. The emerging innovation movement has the potential to spark new ways of thinking about classroom environments, learning experiences, and programming that inspires 21st-century learning.

As part of an SIT, 30 students in grades 9–12 came together to answer the question: How could the student experience be better for all members of our community? Through this SIT model, students learned about the innovation process, including the human-centered design process, to solve problems and discover how to work collaboratively.

In the crosswalk situation, our student team gathered data and interviewed fellow students who took this path to school daily to better empathize with their plight. Based on the feedback, they defined the problem and began to ideate on different solutions. Next, the team developed prototypes. In June 2016, the student team had the opportunity to present their research and ideas to the Minnetonka city manager and the engineering team.

Pause for a minute and think about what we hope for all students—that they take what they’ve learned and apply it. In this case, students researched a topic about which they were passionate, created a presentation, and presented it to an outside audience. This is authentic, real-world learning.

In the end, the city approved this project that resulted in the Rapid Flash Beacon Pedestrian Crosswalk. It was an exceptional symbol of student voice leading to action that actually improved the experiences of students and the broader community. You can only imagine the pride and sense of accomplishment the students felt over their successful innovation work.

Why Student Voice Matters

In our work as principals, it is apparent that student voice impacts school culture. Students feel connected. Students feel ownership of their school. Students care. Students build strong relationships with staff. The research shows that all of these factors lead to students’ academic and personal success.

The student innovation team is just one of a series of strategies we have implemented to bring student voice to the leadership table. Often, we can get lost in the theory around any particular practice or idea. Let’s take a look at some other ways that student voice has led to positive change in our schools.

Principal’s Advisory Council

Two years ago, we created an application-based leadership team called the Principal’s Advisory Council. This group represents a cross section of our school and meets monthly. Both the administration and student members bring issues to the table. Early in its existence, this group posed the question of why computers are literally at the center of the media center when each student has their own school-issued device. This singular question resulted in the renovation of the space. A question two years ago about the need for all of the lockers in the school (based on the fact that most students don’t use them) has resulted in the removal of nearly 1,000 lockers at Minnetonka High School. Collaborative workspaces have been installed in their place. Over the past year, this team worked with architects to design the conversion of 8,000 square feet of locker room into five new classrooms and collaborative spaces. Student feedback impacted everything—from the type of furniture used, to the configuration of classrooms, to the types of conference rooms, to the name.

The structure of this nonelected group is highly nimble, and it provides the principal with an avenue to gather student voice.

Program Advisory Teams

Each of our key programs and committees includes students in its leadership and function. This has been an important way for students to understand the greater context within which schools operate, and it has given them an opportunity to give back. At Eden Prairie High School, as we navigated the challenge of aligning expectations across more than 3,000 students and more than 200 faculty members, our Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) student leadership team launched a schoolwide art challenge to gather ways to communicate expectations that would capture students’ attention. This helped flip the conversation to a place where students saw themselves more in our expectations and were more deeply invested. This same leadership team is running multiple tests of new flexible learning and collaborative spaces to better understand what works in our environment and how it impacts school culture. Through this team, it again has become evident that students want a positive, safe school more than anyone.

Social Media to Harness Student Voice

Social media can serve as a strong and positive communication tool between the principal and the students. Twitter quickly became the primary tool we used to acknowledge and honor the successes of students in the arts, academics, activities, or athletics. Our number of followers grew, as did relationships with students. This quickly extended to alumni as we held our first “Twitter Town Hall” to hear the voices of our graduates. Starting at 10:30 p.m. (which turned out to be too early!), we posed a variety of questions from “How did our school prepare you for college?” to “What could be better?” Over the next two hours, our alumni joined in and gave us frank, affirming, and useful feedback. For the alumni it was a virtual reunion, and for me it was fun way to connect. This past October, we held our fifth annual Twitter Town Hall. Our participation has increased, and each year after just two hours we have pages of comments, affirmations, and ideas. While this is focused on our alumni, our current students and our community watch and see that our focus on student voice doesn’t end with the toss of the graduation cap.

Student Involvement in School Core Design

Students are regularly involved in the lock and stock of what we do as principals—overseeing the academic program, leading innovation, and hiring staff. Consider these three strategies for engaging students in these core areas:

  • Form focus groups for development of new programs. When making programmatic decisions, such as developing strands within an interdisciplinary applied professional studies program like Minnetonka’s VANATAGE program, or launching an online learning curriculum, we invite students to formally provide feedback. Our development of two VANTAGE strands illustrates the effectiveness of this strategy. When deciding which courses to pair together and what to name a strand, we gave students multiple examples and asked them to think aloud as they processed the options. After finalizing the course combination (AP Environmental Science paired with economics), we received feedback that students interested in sustainability are likely to be attracted to an experience with a global perspective. As a result, we added “global” to the title, and for the first time the global food sustainability strand received enough course enrollments to run. In revamping a health sciences strand (anatomy paired with AP Psychology), we sat with students interested in medical careers. They were excited about the course combination but wondered why we hadn’t included a certification track within it and considered what it would take to do that. Health sciences students are now eligible for Certified Nursing Assistant and Emergency Medical Responder certifications, and enrollment is far outpacing our most ambitious predictions.
  • Administer surveys. Our students are accustomed to completing surveys about their school experiences. We see the highest engagement when the surveys are internally created and proofread by students before distributing them (we use the think-aloud method here, too). Our most actionable insights are gleaned when the surveys are imagined and analyzed in conjunction with our other channels for student voice. For example, we survey students to test whether the opinions held by a focus group are shared by their peers and vice versa.
  • Organize interview teams. We believe all of our work depends on the “who”—making hiring decisions is among the most important choices we make. Consequently, we make sure that students have a seat at this table, too, which often means students lead candidates on tours of our schools and ask candid questions.

Openness, Courage, and Intentionality

Amplifying student voice to levels that begin to shape school culture is not done in a once-a-month meeting or an annual survey. It is far more fundamental. It requires an openness to hear what students have to say and the courage to act on it. It also requires intentionality—we commit to listen to students’ ideas, build empathy, and learn from each story. When the principal embraces student voice into their leadership approach, a collaborative, positive student and school culture results.

Jeff Erickson is principal at Minnetonka High School in Minnetonka, MN. Robb Virgin is principal at Eden Prairie High School in Eden Prairie, MN.

Want to carry on a conversation with Erickson and Virgin? Tweet Erickson @TonkaPrincipal or Virgin @EPPrincipal.