Elevating Student Voice in Our School Community and Beyond

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By: Derrick Lawson  

One of my mantras as a principal in the community where I grew up and have served at each level of K–12 education originates from the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Today, we need an entire community of people to provide a safe, accepting, and supportive environment with all the resources to help our students develop and flourish and lead the next generation of adults who will shape society.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of listening to and watching a group of National Honor Society students and National Association of Student Council members from around the country give a presentation about their experiences in these student leadership programs and how rewarding it was to see the power of their impact. I knew then I needed to bring that same energy back to my campus to reach my students.

I needed to inspire students to see themselves as part of the larger world and provide them access to opportunities that are often unknown or perceived as beyond their reach economically, socially, or demographically. To help our community do just that, I turned to the National Partnership for Student Success. Based at the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, the program provides resources, such as a Planning Toolkit: Collaborative Goal-Setting Events, that helped focus our efforts.

I first shared my vision with our activities director, and together we helped our school start a student council as part of the National Association of Student Councils. We, along with our student leaders, then presented our plan for strengthening student leadership to our city and state officials and local chamber of commerce members. We also secured a sponsorship to take a contingent of 12 student leaders to NASSP’s LEAD Conference in Washington D.C., a life-changing event for them. 

Upon our return, the students developed a larger frame of reference and ideas for elevating student voice in our school. First, we established a student senate with student voices represented from every team, club, and student organization on campus. We also sponsored students to become part of the local youth advisory councils in our community. We then met with our superintendent who had invited students from each secondary school in the district to participate in a process to develop our district’s North Star, our local “Portrait of a Graduate.” This four-session process, which involved students from our leadership group, resulted in a community collaboration to identify the skills, dispositions, and competencies students need for post-high school success. Student voice was also represented on the school board with the creation of a position for a student member. 

We expanded our efforts by partnering with all the middle and high school student leaders across the three school districts in our area (the Coachella Valley). We began working with my previous activities director who had moved to a middle school, and we launched the Coachella Valley Leadership Team. We also began hosting an alternating monthly meeting, one for advisers and one for student leaders, with the goal of equipping them all with leadership skills as part of a giant PLC.

The toolkit from the National Partnership for Student Success, as well as a grant we’ve received from the organization, will help us plan our first tri-district invitational summer conference. For this launch, the grant will cover a small stipend so that advisers and students can attend the conference. Students will lead breakout sessions and gain the planning and leadership skills they need to run events for adults and their peers. Our registration so far is strong, and our superintendent will attend to inspire and commend the students.

Our future is looking bright as we commit to leadership development, community service, and civic engagement. As a school leader, I encourage you to reach across your feeder school aisles and the cross-town-rival school aisles and bring together the student leaders in your “village.” Together, we can instill a sense of responsibility and agency in students and prepare them to be informed and empowered contributors to our communities and beyond.

Derrick Lawson is the principal of Indio High School in Indio, CA, and a member of the NASSP Board of Directors.