School leaders have learned many lessons during the pandemic, with the importance of resetting their school’s culture chief among them. Some people have said that the 2020–21 year was the most challenging in public school history. If that’s true, then the 2021–22 school year should have been the most pivotal in paving the way for a new and more positive educational landscape. Students are hungry to be involved in school and make a difference in the world, and principals have the chance to feed that hunger. School leaders need to not only actively listen to their students but solicit their feedback on issues that directly impact school culture. By doing so, students will learn the power of their voice and the needs of their school. In my experience as a principal, there are four ways that school leaders can harness student voice to reshape and reinvigorate a positive school culture.
- Take Their Advice
The power behind a Student Advisory Council (SAC) cannot be overstated. When students want to be involved and share their views on how to improve the climate and culture, leaders must let them know that they see and hear them. The SAC at Western Branch Middle School (WBMS) in Chesapeake, VA, where I am the principal, meets four times a year. Grade-level meetings are open to all students to encourage diverse ideas. Student ideas that come from these meetings include pep-rally activities, lock-ins with teachers, student recognition ceremonies for achievements beyond academics, and instructional recommendations such as incorporating more brain breaks during class. There is no better way to improve a school culture than by soliciting advice from your most valued community members: the students.
- Justice for All
On the heels of the societal travesties that our country faced in the spring of 2020, we developed a platform in which students could discuss their feelings. The Social Justice Council (SJC) sought to solicit feedback from students about any organizational or systemic processes that contributed to them feeling marginalized. Student leaders quickly identified three issues: the student dress code, the seating arrangement in our café, and the admissions criteria for honors classes.
First, students felt the existing dress code was discriminatory based on gender, economics, and ethnicity. With my encouragement, student leaders emerged from this council and facilitated a presentation to the staff to explain their concerns and recommendations for improvement. After receiving the staff’s endorsement, a notice was sent to parents indicating that changes to the dress code were coming. After that, the student leaders presented the final approval of the new dress code to the student body on the morning announcements. Since enacting this new policy, student referrals for dress code violations have decreased significantly. Students also report feeling more comfortable about who they are and their ability to express their individuality.
The second issue dealt with the structured seating arrangement we had in our lunchroom. For years, we assigned students seats at tables based on the teacher who was escorting them back to class at the conclusion of lunch. This practice had been in place for more than a decade, but when students requested to have it reevaluated, how could we refuse? Students shared that they felt isolated during the pandemic, and because of the bell schedule they only had a few minutes between classes before they had to be in another room. Their request was simple: Let us sit near our friends, even if we are not in the same class. After discussing this request with the administrative team and staff, we decided to give it a try. What could we lose? After all, we only had 50% of the students attending school at the time—due to the virtual option. The result? Students were able to enjoy eating lunch beside their friends, and no outbursts or misconduct occurred.
Allowing students to make choices has been underrated as an instructional method. However, it can often produce the most essential and valuable learning experience: discovering the influence of their voice and ideas. For example, our changes to the lunch seating practices resulted in students stating that they felt empowered and part of the decision-making process at our school.
The final recommendation from the SJC was to change the admissions criteria for honors classes. For several decades, the criteria included earning Pass Advanced scores on the state evaluation, having above-average reading ability, and earning A’s in the prior year’s classes. This formula may have worked in some people’s eyes, but the data told a different story: We had the second-highest disproportionality rate in our city for the enrollment of Black students in honors classes. The students were right; something had to change.
After consulting with our department chairs, we settled on seven new criteria, with students having to demonstrate independent learning skills, work habits, organization skills, academic maturity, taking the initiative, being a self-starter, and solid reading comprehension. None of the requirements had anything to do with standardized test scores. While most of these criteria are self-explanatory, two areas may need further description. “Initiative” is when students continually assess their own learning and make improvements where needed. Meanwhile, being a “self-starter” encompasses students who can begin work on their own and work well independently. In addition, teachers were no longer the only people determining student admission into these advanced classes, which was a welcome change for many. Parents and students now had the opportunity to rate the student’s performance on the newly designed requirements.
The difference was immediate. We saw a 5% drop in our disproportionality data—falling from 13% to 8%, with 0% representing perfect proportionality. More importantly, students and parents literally cried tears of joy that our staff had this much belief in students’ abilities. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said and did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” This philosophy should be applied to every classroom. WBMS has more work to do, but we are making positive memories for more students of color in this area.
- Leading the Way
The Student Council Association (SCA) has a direct impact on our school’s culture as well. The council meets in the summer with the principal to review leadership principles, as well as chart a course for the events and service projects for the upcoming year. These student voices are some of the most influential, as they are the “boots on the ground” that will get the work done for many of our events and projects. Activities that they most enjoy hosting include the “First Impressions Project” (gardening on Saturday mornings to ensure that the first impression of the school is positive), “In It to Win It” (a game played after school during which students listen to short clips of songs and guess the title and artist), and the “Walk in My Shoes” service project (in which students collect gently used or new socks and shoes to give to a local homeless shelter).
By far their most creative idea was when they advocated for a “Lights Out” dance. After hearing the administration’s safety concerns, they addressed every issue, and the dance became one of our highest-attended events. Students enjoyed multiple glow-in-the-dark attractions, played with beach balls, wore necklaces, participated in Twister, wrote bulletin board messages, enjoyed bowling, played with a Tetherball, got their faces painted, and danced to the latest songs. Parents who are alumni of WBMS have shared with me that they feel their children are attending a totally different school—one that is student-centered, and one in which student voice is not only welcomed but encouraged.
- “Hall”-mark Way to Share
While the three student organizations I’ve mentioned each have their unique strengths, they all share one common flaw: Each is limited to receiving feedback from students with strong engagement in school. We all know that there is another sector of the student population that is disengaged. The fact that these students do not participate as much does not negate the importance of their input. In fact, it could be argued that their insights may be even more telling, as there may be reasons why such students choose to stay isolated. We have found that town hall meetings during school provide an opportunity for this group of students to share their thoughts anonymously and without having to commit to any long-term obligation.
On selected days, students bring their electronic devices to lunch to participate in these meetings, which occur twice each month. Questions from these meetings focus on a variety of topics. For example, we ask students about the physical infrastructure: “Do we need new water fountains, or should we add pockets to the backs of stall doors?” And we ask for their thoughts on virtual learning: “What part of virtual learning would you like to see continued next year?” We also ask for their academic reflections: “List the classes in which you are doing the same or better in terms of grades compared to last year” or “List the classes in which your grades have dropped or classes that you have struggled with so far this year.” Results from these meetings are shared with staff and give school leaders direction on professional development, work orders, and events to place on the school calendar.
When discussing school culture, we must remember that culture is what you see and experience, not what you hope for. At every moment of every day, school personnel must strategically plan for what is ideally happening with students and adults, and what adults are doing when students don’t comply. We cannot blame students for the school’s culture. As inspirational speaker Alexander den Heijer states, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” Understanding this, it is imperative that we seek insights from the student body to create a positive school culture for everyone. By working with students, educators can change their school cultures from “blah” to “bam!” The key to this transformation is ultimately student voice.
S. Kambar Khoshaba is the principal of Western Branch Middle School in Chesapeake, VA.