Student Council is too often just the stuff of proms and popularity. Rarely is it associated with actual empowered decision making.
At our school, advisories serve several purposes. Perhaps most importantly they are a place where all students can engage in socio-emotional learning, let their guards down, and be known by an adult who cares and advocates for them. Because it is such an essential structure in our school culture, it’s natural that we decided to utilize it when constructing our system of student government. This happened for us organically, and powerfully our first year of existence.
When you are starting a school you cannot anticipate what issue will arise as your first test in student voice and democracy. In our case, it was backpacks, more specifically, where they should go. In our cramped basement space the teachers wanted them to be stowed in nearby cubbies. However, many of the kids wanted to keep them with them in the classrooms. But even though they promised to stow them neatly under their desks, inevitably the backpacks would be strewed around the room, landmines waiting to be tripped over.
Not the stuff that books are written about, but I knew that how this issue was handled would set a tone and direction for the future of the school. So after consulting with the staff, we decided to hand the issue over to Advisory Council.
When most kids imagine what democracy looks like, they think it looks like a vote. We got push back when we worked with the group to come up with a more inclusive and deliberate process for decision making. Working with the Council we finally came up with the following steps: 1) write and disseminate a survey to learn how everyone felt about the issue; 2) analyze the results of the survey; 3) come up with a plan based on that analysis; 4) bring the plan to the staff and advisories for feedback; 5) get final approval of plan by administration (me); and 6) implement the plan for a trial period to see how it works.
What they learned from the survey was that some kids felt very strongly that they wanted their backpacks with them at all times, but many didn’t care at all where they were stored. The ultimate plan, therefore, let students choose their storage plans, encouraging those who had no preference they should store them in their cubbies, out of the way of classroom traffic.
After the policy was implemented, I repeatedly reiterated what the decision making process we adopted was so that the students would be aware that not only were we open to responding to student concerns and input, but also to highlight what engaging in a process that was measured and thoughtful entails.
It would be nice to know the actual impacts of decisions we make, but life is not that tidy. I like to think that getting this process right in that first year contributed to the work that our Advisory Council continues to do. What I do know is that our Advisory Council’s work continues to impress me.
The next year, Advisory Council tackled the fairly universally felt concern that the student body was not getting enough physical activity. So, after studying the importance of exercise, outdoor activity and recess, we added a school wide physical education class on Friday mornings.
Last year, our student body expressed concern over language that was being used, often “in jest”, that some believed to be demeaning, mean, racist, sexist and homophobic. Our first step in addressing this problem this year was to convene an open and voluntary meeting to discuss and learn about what was going on. As a result of what we learned from that meeting we scheduled a couple of “Understanding Circles” in which we invited not only students, but parents and community members to dialogue about two designated issues.
This year our illustrious former Advisory Council advisor, Marcus Whitaker, has moved to PFFS-University. This morning Seth Smith and Debbie Barca presented their vision for how Advisory Council can continue to convene the inspired work of our young people. Each advisory is determining who and how they will be represented and meetings will start next week. I can’t wait to see what follows!