Overnight conferences, students traveling alone on public transportation for school-approved events, and out-of-state leadership opportunities that involve travel by plane and train all sound like paperwork-filled headaches to any principal— especially on top of their already busy schedule. Yet, as a student, I see the immeasurable value that these experiences bring to me and other students in the school. Thankfully, my principals have always seen it that way, too.

Promoting Student Advocacy

Student civic engagement and student advocacy have been hot-button topics in recent years, and for good reason. While these ideas are great in principle, it truly comes down to the leader within each school to make the space for students to be empowered. For me, this came to life when my principal supported me when I approached him with the idea of a student advocacy day on Capitol Hill in partnership with the Maryland Association of Student Councils (MASC) and NASSP. From making sure that my absence was marked “excused,” to ensuring that I knew what Metro bus line to take, my principal made sure that I was supported in these extracurricular activities that I wanted to participate in. In fact, not only did my principal jump on board, but so did principals from all over the state of Maryland who supported their students in participating in this event. Because of the administrative support, as well as the support we received from NASSP, 10 students from across the state made it to Capitol Hill to advocate for issues many students face each day. Overall, my fellow students and I were able to meet with congressional staff of five Maryland offices to share our thoughts on school climate and safety, federal opioid abuse legislation, and the need for increased mental health supports for students in schools.

While the Hill Day event was a success, it is only a small example of the numerous events that my principal has given me the space to participate in regarding student advocacy and civic engagement. I have had amazing opportunities to teach workshops at LEAD Conferences, attend state student council conferences, and meet with the governor regarding youth in our community—all of which would not have been possible without the support of my school administration. I have realized that my experience with my school’s administration is unique, yet it’s not difficult to replicate. It comes down to the tone set by the principal, logistical support, and effort focused on cultivating and expanding opportunities that are offered to students.

Creating an open dialogue with students and a space for them to become empowered has, in my experience, been a hallmark of good school administration. By allowing students to lead events such as the student-organized trip to meet with our local senators in our state government, the administration creates a space for student leadership to happen organically. My principals have also been very intentional in praising the civic engagement and advocacy efforts of our students. We know that there are celebrations and awards for athletic and academic efforts, and by including student advocacy awards and praise, my principals led the narrative by indicating that these types of leadership achievements were equally important. Setting this tone by example led to support not only from our teachers—who are always hesitant when students miss school—but also from our peers. By placing a renewed focus on such activities, students began to realize that leadership is just as important a skill to have as critical thinking.

Offering Logistical Support

Logistically supporting student advocacy endeavors is one of the most crucial services that principals can offer their students. When planning events such as the MASC-NASSP Hill Day and other events, I did not have the knowledge or skills to logistically organize the day, but I realize the efforts it takes to make these arrangements. My principals have had to sign many permission forms, email my teachers and academic advisers, and help load luggage into multiple buses over the years. Last school year, I missed 24 school days for various student leadership and advocacy events. Knowing that I would miss so much instruction time, my principal personally helped me contact my guidance counselor, academic adviser, and teachers, as well as the attendance office. Having their support and help when trying to organize my academic calendar to fit my extracurricular commitments ensured that I was able to attend every event and conference I wanted. Having the administration’s support reinforced that my school realized how important these activities really were. Their support also played a critical role in my own personal development as I get ready to graduate from high school and prepare for postsecondary education.

Our principals have always gone out of their way to find new opportunities within our local community for students. At the beginning of this school year, my principal approached me with an opportunity for our student council and Black Student Union students to participate in an Emancipation Day Lynching Memorial event that was taking place just a few miles from our school. Because she brought this opportunity to our attention, students were able to collect soil that was sent to the Legacy Museum and speak about our county’s history alongside members from the Equal Justice Initiative and the NAACP, and we were even featured on the front page of our local newspaper. Without our principal finding this opportunity for us, we would have never been able to serve our community and history in this special way. Having administrators find opportunities that students may not already be aware of not only increases the potential for student advocacy, but also serves as a reminder that students’ voices are valued and encouraged within the school.

I am incredibly lucky to have received support and help from my principals. It has allowed me to work with amazing organizations such as NASSP and MASC, encouraged my growth as a young woman, and deepened my passion for educational policy. My principal individually assisted me and fostered a community that truly supported the student voice, and I urge other principals around the nation to do the same. Students are interested in these opportunities and will take advantage of them if principals stress their importance and create an environment where students are able to exercise their voice and grow as leaders.

Sydney Neal is a former member of the NASSP Student Leadership Advisory Committee and a current senior at St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Leonardtown, MD.