In the past, high school students were expected to show up, sit in their seats, and do what the teacher told them to do. Aside from some student council activities and clubs, there wasn’t much a student could do to change the day-to-day events or the overall culture of the school—but today’s high schools are much different. Students offer their voices up with ideas for change, and the administration and principals have learned to listen.

Kylie Fulton and Macy Detty, juniors at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, IN, agree with advocating for student voice: “[The students] can bring attention to issues that administration and faculty may not realize or notice,” Fulton says. Detty adds, “With the number of students at a school, it can be difficult to speak up about a problem or issue a student sees. [The Raising Student Voice & Participation, or RSVP] system gives students a way to have a voice.”

To further investigate the idea of student voice in high schools, we turned to Rebecca Grooms, principal of Memorial High School in Tulsa, OK; Jeffry Henderson, principal of Center Grove High School; and Ann Postlewaite, director of student programs for NASSP. Principal Leadership’s senior editor, Christine Savicky, moderated the discussion.

Savicky: What is student voice, and why is it important?

Henderson: From our perspective, it is giving students the opportunity to have their opinions, their desires, their beliefs about the institution in which they’re receiving their education, and the process heard. It is to have their voice heard and for administration to take into consideration the things that they feel are important to them in their school environment. It is important because kids need to understand and believe that schools are there to serve their needs. Many activities that create positive momentum in our schools have grown out of student interest and them caring about a community greater than themselves.

Teenagers get a bad rap in the media, sometimes by being portrayed as unproductive members of society, but I’ve found that to be absolutely the opposite. I know teenagers who are far more involved in giving back to their community than adults. Knowing that they have the capacity to institute programs, clubs, organizations, community service initiatives within their school, and have a place to rally like-minded individuals is critically important to their development as productive citizens.

Postlewaite: There’s the trust and respect with the admin team, the teachers, and the faculty they are sharing their voice with—it needs to be authentic. We need to show that there really is concern, and we want to hear what the students have to say—their thoughts, their ideas, and their opinions—about change. It can’t be just, “Yes, we’re telling you that, but we’re still going to go ahead with our own plan.” The school is there to serve the students’ needs, and the students can be engaged and involved in that process, whether it be community service, engaging their whole community, or making change within their own building—in food service, in classes, in the cleanliness of the building. They have to know that they have the ability to work together collaboratively to make changes and understand that some of those changes might be able to be implemented quickly, but others may take a longer process where students have to work together to hear all student voices, suggest recommendations, and then work collaboratively with the administration to understand the process it takes to make those changes.

A key item that students want to change is the start time and end time of the day. But they don’t know all that is involved. I have worked with a group of students who were advocating for this change. I had to tell them, “That’s bigger than just our school building.” It depends on the school district, the availability of transportation, childcare services, etc. I had to make sure they understood the process and talk about logistics. But collectively our students are the ones who have collected the hundreds of thousands of dollars for everything from cancer research to canned goods for their local food bank, so students need to know they have some ownership and that they can be engaged and involved in their education and where things go in their building.

Grooms: Student voice is student participation in making decisions for the school. The second part of that is acting on those decisions. Student voice, to me, is receiving a lot of input from students, but if we don’t act on that input, then we’re really not utilizing student voice. I could say that student voice is important because of attendance, discipline, and things like that, but I think it’s important because we need to know what makes students buy into their school. These students are in high school. They are here for four years—it’s like a job, 7.5 hours a day. We also have a lot of diversity in our schools now. We need to hear from all of our students regardless of ethnicity, gender, etc., to find out what they want to change. In my school we are lucky because we are small. We have the capacity to change what needs to be changed because of our smaller population and resources.

Savicky: What is RSVP, and how does the program benefit a school?

Henderson: For us, RSVP is a formal process that’s facilitated by our student government in seeking input from our entire student body about the kinds of changes that they would like to see in the school. That input can vary from things like changing start times, to locations of vending machines, to water fountains that refill water bottles being located near a band and choir area, or it can be any variety of changes that they would like to see, from the cafeteria menu to tardy policies to discipline policies. In our building, that’s a formal process that’s initiated through student government. The student government representatives go into our homeroom periods. We call those “STAR” classes, which stands for “Students, Teachers, And Relationships,” and they go out and seek input from the entire student body. Then they meet with members of the administration to go through all of the things that they have heard from students.

Postlewaite: Jeff mentioned how he’s implementing RSVP; it really is a process that is led by the students. It was built so that every single student voice is heard. After the STAR class where the student leaders gather data, the results of the inquiry are posted in the school for all to see, and so kids can realize that there are others who think like they do—or not—and that the things they are deciding are getting done in the school based on what the students have to say. It is a multistage process. After talking to their fellow students, the student government gets approval from the administration and then works again with the student body to create an action plan. Then the student government reports back to the general population again.

RSVP is designed for the students to know that their voices are heard and to see the changes made, so they know they are respected. We had a principal who said, “The first thing the kids said they wanted were microwaves to reheat their leftovers.” He said, “I was able to holler out at my secretary and say, ‘Order four microwaves from Target. Let’s go get them.’” They were in the cafeteria the next day, and the students knew they were heard.

Grooms: At first when I found out about RSVP this summer, I went online, looked, and thought, “Oh. This is a lot.” I couldn’t really see how it was going to come to fruition, but I gave it to my student council class and then extended it to the general [school] population. We ended up training 70 students. We paid for the consultant to come in for a daylong training. Then those trained students went to each and every English classroom. They did the three summits and the protocols, and we ended up with a lot of really awesome information. The results exceeded my expectations. The students took their job very seriously, and what came out was in three “buckets.”

The first bucket was bathrooms—they wanted cleaner bathrooms. The girls wanted feminine products, and the boys wanted a curtain. They wanted full-length mirrors and hand sanitizer. They were very specific. The second bucket was about the cafeteria. They wanted to be able to see the menu when they’re in line so they know what’s being served—a practical idea that we’re absolutely going to do. The third bucket involved school spirit. The main request was to bring powder puff football back. For our pep rallies, they wanted the freshmen back over on the other side—which is the way we used to do it—to make room on the bleachers, and they wanted more spirit days so they could wear jeans. All of their requests were doable. I thought they would request something outlandish and I would have to say no. I had to rearrange my boundaries, thinking, and schedule when it came to listening to them.

Savicky: What can principals do to encourage student voice and empower students in their schools?

Henderson: First and foremost, principals have to have an open mind and a belief that student voice matters, and that the school really belongs to kids, not to the adults. We are servant leaders. It doesn’t minimize the importance of our presence; the school doesn’t really belong to the administrative team, the teachers, or the parents. We all have a part in helping steward the process and guiding kids through that developmental period of their lives, [but] we have to have a foundational belief that the school belongs to the kids and that it’s here to serve their needs. To do that, we need to be open and welcoming to conversations with kids about what they think is important.

Postlewaite: The principal really has to be approachable. Students can be gung-ho and eager to make changes, but the principal has to also value student voice and listen to their opinions. Students have to feel the trust and respect from the admin team. When the principal is interacting with them, engaging them, then they have the confidence to really create change in their school and community. The school [has] to serve their needs.

Grooms: The major thing that principals can do is listen. Even if my students are telling me something that in the back of my mind I don’t think can happen, instead of saying no immediately, I ask questions like, “How would we do that?” and “How can we find out more about this?” which guides the students to think through the request. The key—after the discussion—is to follow through on the input they have provided.

Savicky: What is an example of a successful student-led program in your school?

Henderson: I think RSVP in our building is a prime example of a student-led initiative that has resulted in changes in our building that reflect student voice. We have a Best Buddies program where we pair general ed students with special ed students, and they are very actively involved in partnering with those students in community activities and events, attending school functions, other functions in the general community. We look at our Key Club organization, which promotes a very successful blood drive to benefit our community annually. We have Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, and we have a Riley Club that conducts activities and fundraising to support children who are having medical difficulties very close to our own community.

We have also implemented a period of the day this year in response to the need for students to have an opportunity to get additional time and support from content-area experts that we call AIM—Always Improving Myself. It’s the same period that our STAR class meets, so it’s carved out to be about 40 minutes in the day. The students go online and select what teacher they need to go see to get additional help and time and support from. It has changed the culture of students wanting to go get help, because now everybody is choosing a place to go during that block of time, and they are no longer singled out as needing help. Teachers still have the ability to trump a student’s selection if they need to make up a test or a missing lab activity, but ideally, if students have all their homework done, they’re caught up in all their classes, they get to pick where they go during that 40-minute block of time three days a week.

Postlewaite: Programs that have worked that are student-led, along with the RSVP program, are mentorship programs and freshman orientation programs. If you’re talking on the RSVP student-led changes, there have been great changes made in food service, where students work collectively with their food service specialists regarding what students want to eat (as opposed to just adults making those choices). Students do understand nutrition and want to engage with what they are putting in their bodies. We also had a group of students who felt unsafe leaving their parking lot on a busy road. The students suggested [and] advocated with the school administration, school board, city council, and their neighbors around the school to establish a red light outside the school that would run during the arrival and departure times at the school. This was a project that took much more than a request to the principal. The students had facts to gather and meetings to attend. But in the end, this was a change made for all.

Grooms: Right now, RSVP is the best student-led program we have. I had some teacher pushback at first. They didn’t want to give up any of their teaching time or rearrange their testing schedule to accommodate the students. But since the first meetings, the teachers have wholeheartedly bought into the program. The students bought in right away.

Savicky: How do you incorporate student voice within a culturally diverse school?

Henderson: One of the things that we have in place is a student-led club approval process that’s really open to any individual student. They can submit a proposal to the admin team to have any new club started. The requirements are that they make a formal written proposal that includes the purpose or intent of their club or organization, how often they would meet, where they would plan to meet, and who they have secured as a faculty adviser. The majority of student-led groups and organizations that we have in our building are unpaid sponsorships or unpaid adviserships, so the students have to find a faculty adviser who will assist in the supervision of students and assist them in negotiations with administration about any materials, supplies, resources that they would need.

For us, it’s all about ensuring that all of our students know that they have the capacity to start a new club or organization—that it’s not limited. We obviously do the normal checks that one would do of the intent or purpose of the club to ensure that it’s not something that a group of students is putting together in order to intimidate or harass or embarrass another group of students, or to be in direct conflict with another group of students. But just maintaining that openness is really important.

Postlewaite: I had a program very similar in the last school I was at as the activities director. We had a group of skateboarders and bikers who kept saying, “Miss P., we’re the ones who are getting kicked off our school campus because we’re doing these things we shouldn’t be able to or we can’t do because they’re worried we’re going to get hurt here. But we want a space,” and asking, “Could we be featured? Can we do a demonstration during the homecoming tailgating event?” We had this huge event, and I said, “OK, guys, you need to write a proposal and bring it to the student government group, and then we’ll work with you to plan it.” I also made sure they were aware of some of the obstacles they could meet. But they did it. The parents brought in a skateboard ramp, and we roped it off. We had extra ambulances there, and the kids who participated signed waivers for our district. It was a huge success. Ideas can come from anyone, and in our book, they are all great ideas.

The RSVP program also encourages diversity. In the training, everyone must offer some idea. When the trained leaders are conducting their summits, everyone is given the opportunity to speak and encouraged to use their voice. That creates diversity in the ideas proposed. I know in other schools they’ve had different opportunities with the student voice where the principal and the admin team meet with a variety of different groups of students, be it for lunch or at a scheduled time with the principal to make sure that representation is heard.

Grooms: In our AP classes and our leadership class, we do what I call an equity audit. I want the student leadership to reflect our student population—we’re 10 percent non-English speaking, 27 percent special ed, 29 percent Hispanic, 21 percent white, 33 percent African American, and 4 percent Native American. So that’s what we do. We incorporate those demographics into our leadership team.

We started with an initiative this year where we were going to do a big Black History Month, a big Hispanic History Month, and a big Native American Month. We had a student committee, and really it just came down to where the student committee just didn’t want a Hispanic celebration—they just felt like it wasn’t necessary. They said they would rather do the Black History Month because that would be more beneficial. I found that really interesting, because I thought each culture would want a celebration month. But it’s not about race all the time. It’s not about ethnicity. To me, it’s just as much about poverty and where that poverty is. The team needs to represent everyone, not just those who have a nuclear family at home. Those students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged need to have their voice heard to let them know that they are included in the school family. I’m not saying we’re perfect. It’s always a process.

Savicky: How do you and your teachers incorporate student voice in the classroom, and is it hard to get teacher buy-in for student voice?

Henderson: Much of our conversation today was spent talking about many of the things that are extracurricular or cocurricular, or community service, or student club-oriented, but there’s also the component of student voice and agency within the classroom with regard to the curriculum and the learning that is taking place that we haven’t spent time focusing on. That’s equally important in this whole process. We see more and more teachers including what they would refer to as “voice and choice” in their classroom: lesson design [and] opportunities for the students to select from one of four ways to demonstrate their proficiency or mastery of a particular skill or specific learning target. So, there’s a lot of student voice that plays into this that we’re seeing in classrooms today and encouraging teachers to incorporate.

As a whole, if you look at the number of student-led clubs and organizations that we have, I would say we have many adults in the building who are interested in participating in the lives of the students beyond the 85-minute class period. But that is a continuing and growing challenge in the field of education—more and more transiency among teaching staff than there ever used to be, and it has become harder and harder to find teachers to employ, particularly in certain high-need content areas or specialized content areas. Those adults are very committed to ensuring that they’re spending quality time with their own families as well. And so, there’s a delicate balance.

Postlewaite: In one school, in the RSVP process, the students suggested different global languages—Chinese, Japanese, or Russian. This was something the school had planned on doing in the future, but because the students made repeated requests, the teachers in the Global Language Department heard and responded. The school now has a diverse global language program.

Grooms: When the leadership students first showed up in the classroom for the summits, some of the teachers didn’t have the confidence that students could manage their classrooms and deliver the protocol with only the three student leaders. The students could feel the lack of trust and confidence from the teachers and felt defeated. But after the first class—this is what the kids told me—they could feel a shift from the teachers. They knew they were supported, and the teachers knew that it wasn’t going to be a total nightmare with kids running around. That created buy-in for the teachers. From the onset of the RSVP program, buy-in wasn’t immediate, but I had to just lead by saying, “Oh, we’re doing this. We have to listen to our students.”