Students on school boards

I just finished a long day at the National School Boards Association annual conference here in Chicago. It was a fascinating day for me, and I have a few insights I want to share here.

My friends at Youth On Board passed on their invitation to present at this conference to me, as part of our ongoing partnership. This very cool hook-up led me to presenting a workshop called “Getting Youth On Boards.” It was completely astounding to me, about 1/2 way through the workshop, when one of the participants pointed out that no one there was against the idea of students being decision-makers or serving on school boards. By the measure of no one speaking out (or acting out) against it, this observation was correct. (If you’ve read my past blogs, you know that I suffer a little distrust of adults.) So it was entirely refreshing to sit in a room full of adult educational policy-makers who were supportive of student voice.

Which leads to observation number one: Many adults want to do the right thing, they just don’t know how. Consequently, they end up making up a lot of things, and subsequently fall flat on their face, or worse still, perpetuate the very evils they thought they were fighting in the first place. I’ve heard it said a dozen times, that most teachers don’t start teaching because they want to hurt kids. They (usually) want to help. I would extend that to most occupations that work with young people: adults do this work for most of the right reasons. However, those good intentions get lost in the transition from rhetoric to reality.

The second part of my day brought me to a session led by students of Lucy Gray, a teacher at the University of Chicago Lab School. John Dewey founded the Lab School to have a fertile stomping ground – talking about a legacy. The students were brought to the conference to discuss the effects of technology on their learning. The ironic part, for me, is that rather than exposing the “rightness” of tech literacy or tech in school at all, they were glaring examples of what authority among students looks like. Not suprisingly to some, one of the seventh grade presenters actually threw out an analogy that went over the heads of many adults in the audience. They were that deep: which isn’t to say they were exceptional, but that their words were well-heeded.

Here’s my second observation: When young people are responsibly, intentionally, and dutifully partnered with adults, the world changes, right then and there. The expressions on the faces of the workshop attendees weren’t fully ones of pity and shock; they were filled with awe and expectation. “If you are the future, we’re in good hands.” Well, here’s news world: Young people are leaders today, and the Lab students Lucy brought show that.

None of this is meant to sound overly optomistic or dreamy about the future of schools: I heard some scary things from the mouths of adults today. However, there is hope, and that hope is for today and tomorrow. Following are the steps developed by this group to promote a “national agenda” for meaningful student involvement in school boards:

Raise school board member awareness. Adults, including teachers, parents, community members, and other school board members, need to raise the level of awareness and understanding current school board members have about student voice. As one person said, “All the kids in all the world can tell me they want this, but I only really heard it when you started talking about this Adam.”

Create policies proponenting meaningful student involvement. When school board members recieve policies and laws from “on high,” they follow them. Create laws policies throughout the educational system – including at local schools, at the district office, as the state, and at the federal Department of Education. These laws should introduce, justify, enforce, and expand upon student involvement at all levels.

Teach students. Its great to have student members on the board, but what happens when they keep falling asleep in meetings? Educate students about what they’re engaging in, teaching them about policy history, funding stream issues, and more. Then, and only then, put them to work, keeping in constantly contact and reflecting together throughout.

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