What is the one thing that only a student can provide to a school board? Perspective. The forces that shape a generation, such as radio, television, the internet, cell phones, social media, change over time. Only a K-12 student can tell you how it feels to be a kid in 2023. In school districts across the state, momentum is growing to include student voice in the decision-making process. More school boards are adding student representatives.
“When board members approach me with ideas, questions, etc., I like to ask, ‘Well, have you asked the students in your district?’ This normally sparks a conversation,” said Logan Endres, founder of the WSSDA Student Board Representatives Network. A strategic advocacy specialist, Endres knows of several Washington school districts with student representation going back as far as 2004. Today, he estimates that at least 142 districts include student board representation. “The feedback has been incredible! I hear positive and encouraging comments from student representatives, district board members, and staff alike about the benefits.”
In addition to board representation, many districts create superintendent student advisory committees drawn from elementary, middle, and high schools. “Although student representatives can’t actually be a voting member of the school board, through student advisory votes, you can see if students really like the policies and initiatives that are going through the board,” said Tejasvini Vijay, a student board representative at Riverview School District.
Erin Jones, former assistant state superintendent for student achievement in Washington and one-time educator, said, “What I realized is we were not talking to the people who were most impacted by legislation. So you had really well-intentioned, well-meaning decision-makers, whether in our state Legislature or district superintendents, making policy about people they were not talking to. We cannot possibly write good legislation if we’re not hearing from the people who will be most impacted by it.”
Erin Jones encourages school directors to reach out to students for feedback, and let them know that they genuinely want to get to know and hear from students. She said, “It becomes part of the practice of running school board meetings to listen to students. There are ways to listen to student advisory boards and communities, but I think having members on the board, even if they can’t vote and listening to them, that’s really important.”
There was only one student representative when Hillary Seidel joined the Olympia School District Board of Directors five years ago. Today, four students sit on the board, one for each high school. Seidel said, “When the pandemic hit, we were so lucky to have two very active and engaged student representatives who really led a lot of the conversation about what students were needing most, how they were feeling, and how we should be directing our funding and our work towards remote learning.”
“I think being able to represent students from preschool all the way to the 12th grade is such an awesome opportunity,” said Elise Garza, a senior and student board representative at Othello School District. “We get to voice everybody’s opinion and just make sure that we’re really representing all of those people…I had a student come up to me and share an experience that they had … and I reiterated to my board. ‘Hey, this is going on.’ And, I think the student wasn’t the only person feeling that way. So we made some changes, and it really helped students in our district feel more included.” Garza adds, “As a student, you should remember that your voice matters.”
Involving student voice is only the first step. Districts and boards need to make representatives feel safe, trusted, respected, and that their voice will impact the policy decisions. Sometimes students face pushback from the community, and they need the support of the school board and the administration. “They [students] are designing social media campaigns. They are working on focus group protocols, and they are speaking for students with courage and tenacity when it comes to advocating for that equitable education that all our students deserve…And it’s not always easy for them,” said Seidel. “So, if you do have student representatives on your board and you empower them to do this meaningful and important work, you also need to be prepared to support them when the work that they are doing is difficult…”
Policy impacts different students in different ways, and sometimes with unforeseen consequences. The best way to understand how district decisions impact kids is to include student board representatives from a variety of different backgrounds. “You don’t have to speak English as a first language for your voice to matter,” said Erin Jones. “You don’t need to be a straight ‘A’ student for your voice to matter. You don’t need to be in DECA. You need to want to make your school community the best place it possibly can be.”