SoundOut: Serving the School as Community


I wrote this article for the Spring 2006 edition of the ServiceLine Journal, a defunct newsletter originally published by Kate McPherson of Project Service Leadership, then published by Educational Service District 112 in Vancouver, Washington.

The agenda of schools is routinely set by adults. “Educating the future workforce,” “Promoting a better tomorrow,” and even, “Making a better democracy,” are all goals found plastered across schools throughout Washington. Recent statistics show that 92% of any given school’s total population is made of students themselves, and that students routinely spend anywhere from six to ten hours a day at school. However, when was the last time students themselves had a voice in determining the goals of education?

I founded SoundOut in 2003 to respond to this inequity. After carefully studying research supporting student voice, I held informal conversations with students, teachers, administrators, and other allies across the country that helped me form a new vision of education. At its heart, this vision is service learning: it centers on infusing radical democracy throughout the education system, where adults partner with every student as they learn, teach, and lead democracy throughout society.

SoundOut has several projects, including a growing Internet resource center for educators, school-wide leadership training for students and adults, and student-centered programs for schools. Our most successful project so far has been the SoundOut Student Forums. With the support of the HumanLinks Foundation in Bothell, Washington, SoundOut has worked with more than 500 students and educators in 12 schools from each corner of the state to foster student involvement in school improvement.

Working with a principal-selected cadre of traditional and nontraditional student leaders in each school, SoundOut trains participants to solicit, analyze, and aggregate student voice centered on changing schools.

Using these findings, the student leaders partner with teachers to design and implement action plans responding to the most urgent student concerns. In some cases students also correlate their findings with their school’s formalized improvement plan, increasing the efficacy and sustainability of their findings and action plans.

I have found that students are more than willing to share their thoughts, emotions, ideas, and dreams about school – when given proper respect, encouragement, and safety. One of the biggest roadblocks I’ve experienced hasn’t been students’ reception; instead, it’s been adults. When told that their students are going to be encouraged to speak frankly about teaching styles, classroom curricula, or the learning environment, a few teachers in each school actually act aggressively towards their students, using their authority to threaten students.

This serves to extinguish any enthusiasm students may have felt for the project; worst still, it encourages other teachers to do the same. More than one school building leader has approached me excitedly about hosting the SoundOut Student Forums in their school, only to leave their students “hung dry” when teachers complained about the outcomes of the forums.

There have also been some glorious occasions where you could almost feel the culture of a school change. In a 2005 training event sponsored by OSPI, the assistant principal of a rural high school led his students towards a SoundOut training event pragmatically, privately revealing to me that, “We’ve got to find some way to connect with our kids, in a massive and real way. They’re moving out of town too fast, and we need their energy to keep the town alive.” That sort of desperation falls heavy on any facilitator’s shoulders, and I am adamant telling people that I don’t offer any “silver bullets” for their schools, let alone entire communities. 

However, within two days the students from this school left the training charged, committed to helping their peers see the necessity of staying in town and making it a better place. Moreover, the school’s principal showed up at the closing of the event to thank me personally, because, as he said, “I could feel the energy of [the assistant principal] and the kids over the phone!” Calling in on them recently reconfirmed my hopes, when the “Student/Adult Partner Committee” leader (a student) told me that everything was going excellent at his school, because of the SoundOut training.

The SoundOut Student Forums embody a powerful model of service-learning by engaging students as full members of their school community. This authoritative position actively builds on students’ interpersonal communication and critical thinking skills, as well as building their sense of civic responsibility by extending their notion of community. Students work extensively with adult partners and their peers to identify real community needs within education; this strengthens the collaborative process at the heart of effective service learning. The entirety of the project is contingent upon student voice, and embeds reflection throughout.

Recently, SoundOut became a program of a new national nonprofit organization formed in Olympia called CommonAction. Focusing on promoting democratic youth-adult partnerships throughout society, SoundOut fits perfectly within CommonAction’s mission. We are actively seeking new schools to participate in our training and programs, as well as funders to help the project take wings. With luck, the notion behind SoundOut will grow well beyond our meager number of schools; we only hope to support this movement as it goes there. I would love to hear what you think.

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