This article was written with input from student members of NASSP’s Student Leadership Advisory (SLA) Committee. Chosen by NASSP through an application process, the SLA Committee comprises incredibly bright, engaged, and forward-thinking students, advisers, and principals who represent diverse perspectives from across the country. Together, they continually create new ways to promote service and leadership within their peer groups and within schools across the nation.
In recent years, there has been a drastic uptick in youth being involved in advocacy activities in response to tragic events. The school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL; racial injustice; police brutality; the COVID-19 pandemic; and a flurry of other events have been catalysts for young individuals using their voices in a variety of ways to influence positive change. As students become more active in all forms of advocacy, the question must be asked: What are you doing as a leader to support them in these endeavors?
There are many benefits to student advocacy. At Eastern Technical High School in Essex, MD, 12th grader and student advocate Carmelli Leal, who also serves as the president of the Maryland Association of Student Councils, understands the impact of student advocacy. Through her numerous advocacy activities, Leal has found that it “teaches students how to turn their convictions into actions, how to speak up for their peers and school community, how to keep the institutions and systems of power around them accountable, and how to be a successful member of our democracy.” If our nation’s public education system’s main purpose is to prepare students to be successful citizens following their postsecondary education, advocacy can help them in developing many skills necessary for reaching this goal.
Advocacy activities can take form in several different types of events, activities, and methods. But one constant remains when it comes to student advocacy in a school community setting: School leader buy-in is crucial to the success of whatever student advocacy efforts are taken.
Kate Riddle, an eighth grader at Lafayette Middle School in Oxford, MS, noticed that many in her school community were suffering from mental health concerns caused by stress and anxiety. To help enact positive change, Riddle took it upon herself to meet directly with her principal and discuss some possible ways to address these concerns. She and her principal came up with the idea for “Helping Hearts,” a new program where student council members and Riddle would meet directly with a small group of students to share concerns, feelings, and thoughts with one another. Providing concerned students with an outlet and just letting them know that other students care has been a great help for those in Riddle’s community.
“Mr. Chism [the principal] showed nothing but support for Helping Hearts. He let us meet in the school auditorium during homeroom on Fridays. Mr. Chism let us make announcements, hang flyers, and helped us out however he could,” Riddle says. She now feels empowered and wants to try and bring Helping Hearts to every school in America “so every teen knows that there is someone waiting to help them.”
At South Fayette High School in McDonald, PA, 12th grader Mitchell Howard has also seen how critical school leader support is in making student advocacy efforts successful. Howard currently works as the public relations director for the Social Handprints Overcoming Unjust Treatment (SHOUT) program. SHOUT is an all-inclusive social justice organization started at South Fayette High School that has been able to grow and expand to other schools in Pennsylvania. Howard works with a team to reach out to other interested students and administrators about starting their own chapters within their schools. Throughout his work, Howard has found that the “success of outreach discussions has been primarily dependent on the receptive nature of principals.” Once a program is implemented in a school, the success is ultimately dependent on the principal’s willingness to support it, he says. “When an administrator is capable of recognizing issues in school culture, the SHOUT program can be implemented seamlessly. When a principal can go beyond acceptance and actively work to be culturally responsive, true change can be effected,” Howard says. “The impact of SHOUT chapters within schools has been evident and entirely positive. In my experience as public relations director, there is an evident pattern of progress. Principals who are open to change enable students who are willing to make it happen.”
After identifying how important principals are, you may be wondering: How do I get started? Fortunately, Leal has a list of best practices for supporting your students in their efforts. She notes that principals need to consider the culture of their schools before taking any action. Principals should ask themselves the following questions:
- Do students feel comfortable going to their teachers for help?
- If there is a concern in the school building, do students feel that there are trusted adults who will be by their side?
- Are there platforms for students to share their voices and opinions about what is happening in the school building?
- Do staff members feel comfortable asking administrators or department chairs for help?
Leal notes that it is important to include staff and students in a candid discussion. “Ask them what they would like to see. One valuable initiative is a ‘Main Council’ that consists of the presidents of the clubs—or the biggest clubs—at your school. These student leaders can help to serve as representatives for their peers to keep you informed on the student opinion,” she says. “I would even further recommend having a council of students that are not just traditional student leaders or those with the highest grades. Remember, the student voice consists of all types of students regardless of academic success, personality, racial background, gender, and more.”
With a school culture and climate built on acceptance and centered around advocacy, projects and initiatives have a much greater potential for success. But leaders should also be careful not to get too involved in student planning, as students really need to be the ones driving the ship. “When planning these projects with students, it’s also important that adults take the back seat in the conversation. Listen to what students feel most passionate about and what they want to do. Then, help to offer guidance when necessary. Allow them to dream and aspire limitlessly, then think about what is feasible,” Leal says. “If students are having some trouble thinking outside of the box, then give examples. Remember, students first, adults last. When providing feedback on ideas, avoid the word ‘no.’ When students are enthusiastic about their convictions, the last thing you want to do is unintentionally burst their bubble. Ask guiding questions. Gently provide alternatives. This helps students know that you are on their side.”
Next to consider is accessibility, because only when all students are able to participate can a full school community throw their support behind an initiative. Leal points out that principals and students may need to get creative to provide opportunities for all to participate. “While students in a certain club may be the ones to go out and do specific work, find ways that you can engage the entire school community,” she notes. “For example, if student council members are taking a trip to the state capitol to advocate for legislation regarding youth and education, think about what other students can do. They can write emails to their legislators. They can write letters or written testimony that students can drop off or read. The school can help the student council hold an information session to spread awareness among other students. Again, not just traditional student leaders should have access to these opportunities.”
Leal finishes with something many principals do in some form already. Recognize your student’s success and urge them to go even further. “Celebrate the accomplishments of your students. Remind them that their voices are valued and that their bravery is needed,” she says. “Furthermore, don’t let these projects be a one-time activity; make it a school tradition! Adopt an annual advocacy goal. Create collaboration among the clubs in the school. Have teachers find ways to mention it during a lesson.”
Each passing day, we see a movement by America’s youth to try and better their nation for the public in one way or another. As a school leader, you can be an instrumental piece in creating the next group of youth advocates in your school.
The NASSP Policy & Advocacy Center represents school leaders’ interests in the national dialogue on education policies. Carmelli Leal is a 12th-grade student at Eastern Technical High School in Essex, MD, and the president of the Maryland Association of Student Councils. Kate Riddle is an eighth-grade student at Lafayette Middle School in Oxford, MS. Mitchell Howard is a 12th-grade student at South Fayette High School in McDonald, PA. All three students are members of NASSP’s Student Leadership Advisory Committee.
Looking for a place to start or learn more about student advocacy and how you can be supportive? The National Honor Society, National Junior Honor Society, National Student Council, and NASSP all have resources that can help.