An extraordinary thing is taking place at New York City’s High School of Fashion Industries (HSFI). It’s not just that the school is making progress in focusing on belonging and equity for all students—other schools address racism or support social emotional learning. The difference is HSFI is doing this work with their students, not to them. Over the last five years, the school’s approach to actively engaging its 2,000 students as partners, 90% of whom are students of color, is strengthening student learning and school culture, and beginning to permeate every aspect of the school.

Before reading further, see below to think about the role students play in equity improvement in your school. Hold your answers to those statements in your mind as you read about HSFI’s story and consider what it might mean to you and your school.

What Role Do Students Play in Equity Work at Your School?

Take a minute to reflect on who is doing equity improvement work in your school or district and what roles students, if any, play. Be honest as you consider which of the following statements best characterize your setting:
1. We are not really focusing systematically on equity yet.
2. Adults act on their best understanding of student needs.
3. Adults use student survey data.
4. Adults use student focus group participation.
5. Adults occasionally ask students for feedback, perhaps in an advisory or “student cabinet” approach.
6. Adults and students work together as real partners to identify the goals of equity improvement, gather and analyze data, and develop and implement improvement plans.

Changes in Structure

Principal Darryl Blank with student participants in the LATs. PHOTOS COURTESY OF DARYL BLANK

In 2018, at a Harvard Graduate School of Education equity conference, I (Daryl Blank, the principal of HSFI), learned about an Iowa school engaging students as equal partners in equity improvement. Back then, HSFI was not really focusing on equity. If I were to rate us on the statements above, we were a one. Reviewing student responses to a learning environment survey, my team and I were stunned that so few students felt like they had a trusted adult they could talk to at school. We thought we were trying to meet their needs. Fortunately, the conference offered a specific way for us to build stronger relationships and provided a structure for listening to students.

I asked Lee Teitel, who facilitated the work in Iowa, to partner with us at HSFI. For three days, he worked with a core group of 24 people, evenly divided between students and staff. The work was an intensive version of the Equity Improvement Cycle that Teitel and his colleagues at Harvard had developed and used in over 100 school and district settings. After doing some initial work to establish common definitions and trust, the cycle takes a group of educators (or in our case, staff and students) through a process of identifying a focus area for equity improvement. At HSFI we focused on what our classrooms should look like if they were equitable places that fostered belonging. The cycle then calls for collecting data (we visited dozens of classrooms in mixed groups of two staff members and two students). While we saw places where equity and belongingness were evident, we saw many other classrooms that needed improvement. Students and staff then worked together to analyze those discrepancies, to understand why they were not where we hoped them to be, and to make suggestions for systemic improvement.

Most participants described the experience as transformative. Students of color said they felt heard and taken seriously for the first time, and they appreciated discussing race in ways that broke down barriers between teachers and students. “I never knew that teachers in this school cared about me as a person,” said one sophomore. “I now have teachers that I could turn to and talk about racial issues and much more.” Teachers described feeling energized, talking openly about race, and changing their expectations about students and what they could do. In a closing circle, an assistant principal thanked students for “reminding me of how powerful your lived experiences are, your personal narratives, your experiences in our classrooms…you are the agents of change here and you are inspiring to me.”

Despite this enthusiasm, within weeks, the old systems and patterns kicked in. When administrators shared insights from the three days, they left students out, reverting to their normal patterns of holding department meetings, where no students were present.

For the next few years, HSFI started doing the slow work of changing culture, trying to put race and equity work front and center with professional development sessions, book study groups, and diversity clubs to provide leadership development for students. But we were not impacting systems or culture. Then the pandemic hit, with teachers trying to maintain connections in virtual classrooms with students whose cameras were off or who did not attend remote classes altogether.

“Meetings that were formerly all adults now have students attending them, and teachers will reach out to students for feedback on new lessons.”

When students returned to HSFI, I saw the adults in the building were working hard to figure out what the students needed but we were doing it without student voice. (If I were to assess us on the statements above, we had slipped back to somewhere between a two and a three.) After talking about my concerns with Teitel, I launched the Principal’s Advisory Committee, with a structure deliberately co-led by staff members (assistant principals or teachers) and students, focusing on topics the prior equity work deemed important. The committee is divided into four co-led Learning and Action Teams (LATs) focusing on Culture; Systems and Structures; Classroom Instruction; and Belief Systems.

In fall 2022, I reorganized the school’s schedule to provide time during the day for students and staff to meet in their LATs. Each of these four teams consists of five students and five staff members. They dug in to identify an equity challenge, conducted research into practice, and developed and tested remedies that would be put into place the following spring. They used the steps of the Equity Improvement Cycle to address specific areas in their LAT’s focus. All LATs were asked to articulate, monitor, and share what they were doing to ensure equal voice of students and staff.

By January 2023, each team had learned approaches they thought would improve equity and belonging in a specific area. For example, the System and Structures LAT surveyed students and took a close look at discipline systems and made suggestions for how restorative practices could be better understood and implemented. The Culture LAT suggested group work could be improved (as a way to build class culture) if teachers used CHIPS (Choice, Ice breakers, Picking roles, and doing group work for a Short time). In the spring, students and staff from each LAT presented at staff professional development meetings and student assemblies to engage others and ensure their work impacted the rest of the school.

Changes in Culture

When the LAT co-leaders were interviewed by Teitel during spring 2023, powerful themes emerged about how equity co-leadership impacted them as individuals, their school, and their relationships with their co-leaders as well as other adults and students.

Student co-leaders described how being really listened to by staff and administrators led to shifts in their perspective. Most had strong activist roots (“I am a loud and proud Muslim and Pakistani woman,” said one; another senior traced her involvement to a student protest she helped organize in the beginning of her junior year). They were thrilled to have roles that amplified student voice.

They spoke openly about the hard part of disrupting existing power dynamics. “Students want to disagree with teachers, but they don’t want to break that comfortable power dynamic of not really questioning teachers,” one student said.

Students also described how, when their ideas were listened to and acted upon, they were more able to hear administrators’ perspectives on equity-related issues. They saw they and the adults had common goals and watched their student peers develop the courage to speak up, encouraged by the new environment with students and teachers serving on the LAT. “It was a beautiful thing to see,” said one student. “Having the base level of equality allowed for more creativity.”

Before the first intensive three-day equity work in 2018, one assistant principal said, “there were small things to involve students—focus groups, student government, but we were not doing it in any kind of coherent way.” But now there is “a real focus on co-leadership and preparation for it.”

For example, meetings that were formerly all adults now have students attending them, and teachers will reach out to students for feedback on new lessons. One veteran teacher recalled hearing the frustration of students in the past when they would tell her, “I go to meetings and clubs and speak up, but nothing ever gets done.” This teacher is now excited about the current work, sees herself learning from her student co-leader, and appreciates that it is “no longer talk, but action and not just them and us, but together we are building a community.”

Positive Impacts

As principal, I’m integrating the learning and innovation that are coming from the LATs with the core structure of assistant principal decision-making and school administration. All 12 assistant principals play a role in the LATs, as co-leaders, liaisons, or supporters. Student and staff co-leads for each LAT attend meetings with assistant principals, offering updates on their latest work and receiving feedback.

I’m most excited about connecting the two parts of my job—the reactive part of leading 2,000 people in a building and having stuff happen and the proactive planning and learning piece that comes from investing in student leadership and equal partnerships. Now that we are more fully engaging our assistant principals, I feel more confident in the decisions we make as a team for our school. Whatever the data show us and whatever comes up this year, we have the structures in place to succeed and the culture of having students working closely with us.

Lee Teitel is the former director of Reimagining Integration: Diverse and Equitable Schools at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is currently an educational consultant and founding partner of Schools Transforming. Learn more at and Daryl Blank is the principal of the High School of Fashion Industries in New York, NY. Learn more at