What If Kids Ran the Schools?

by Barbara Cervone

January 17, 2013

ALIEF, TX—On the sprawling campus of Hastings High School, ten miles from downtown Houston, over 4,000 students dream of leaving their families’ poverty behind. But the path is far from clear. College and career can seem like abstractions, and the daily logistics of shepherding hundreds of adolescents overwhelm the school’s nine counselors.

“I knew I wanted to go to college, but I had little idea how to get there,” says Natalie, a senior. “GPA, SAT, ACT, financial aid, majors—these are foreign words for students like me.”

Last spring, when Natalie and five other seniors were invited to pick one thing about their school to change, the answer was unanimous: they needed better preparation for life after high school.

Encouraged by guidance counselor Laura Schuhmann, the six seniors hammered out a plan: an annual, semester-long course for sophomores aptly called “Your Future, Now!” Twelfth-graders themselves would be its teachers—with new seniors following in their footsteps each year.

Now in the design stages for a launch next year, the class will move from study skills and goal setting to the ins and outs of applying to college and succeeding in the workplace. “There will be job shadowing, guest speakers, career and college fairs, test preparation,” Natalie explains.

The fact that seniors will be teaching the course means that students will feel freer to talk and to ask questions, says Vi, another student on the planning team. “We will stress teamwork and leadership, two important skills for college and work.”

There’s discussion with the local community college system to offer dual credit, for both the students teaching and those taking the class.

“Everyone wins,” says Schuhmann.

The “One Thing” challenge

The notion that student voice has a place in improving schools has been gaining currency nationwide—though many would argue that it is often more symbolic than real and channeled into nonacademic areas rather than the instructional core.

How did Natalie, Vi and their classmates gain such agency?

For years Houston’s American Leadership Forum and A+ Challenge—which supports school improvement efforts across Greater Houston—had co-sponsored a biennial convocation on public education. Past convocations focused on topics like “the school of the future” or successful transitions from preschool through college. Local education and business leaders, by and large, formed the audience.

Last spring, the convocation planners at ALF and Houston A+ decided to do something entirely different. Under the banner “What if kids ran the schools?” they invited students across the region to become change makers in their school, using a protocol designed for corporate strategic planning. Developed by retired Houston management consultant William Brenneman, the powerful “One Thing” tool helps groups to build consensus and set priorities—in four hours—and then to take action.

Student teams in 23 schools (representing 6 traditional and 2 charter school districts in Greater Houston) took up the challenge. In March 2012, they spent half a day with trained facilitators to identify the one thing they would change— the one thing they would do—if they ran their school.

“Ideas should be fundamental, concrete, measurable changes,” says Brenneman, “not things that might be ‘nice’ for the organization to have or to do.” They should point to a new venture or expansion or something that everyone says is “important” but never seems to get done. “It is not something that the organization has proven success at doing,” Brenneman says.

What the “one thing” demands most of all, however, is deep group consensus—and, in this case, deep student ownership.

“Shared student ownership, that’s what really matters,” Hastings senior Natalie agrees.

The March convocation ended with each team selecting an initiative to work on for the next six months. Volunteers from the American Leadership Forum would work with each student team to turn their “one thing” into action. In November 2012, the students reconvened to share their results.

Getting down to business

“It’s amazing to see how quickly students were able to sort through the complexities, pick a target, develop a plan, gear up, and go,” says Houston A+ director Scott Van Beck. “They put the adult educators to shame.”

The initiatives have been as varied as the schools, which include some of Houston’s largest high schools, where 3,000 students is the norm, and some of its smallest, like Empowerment High School with its 125 students.

At Westside High, one of Houston’s highest-performing high schools (and one of four high schools to accept the most Katrina refugees), the student team aimed its laser at best teaching practices and project-based learning, an approach that sets Westside apart but needs strengthening.

They asked classmates to complete a detailed survey quantifying the extent to which the school’s faculty exhibited teaching practices matched to project-based learning (e.g., how do they let students know of that day’s learning targets?). They then shared the results at a faculty meeting (after honoring teachers with designer cupcakes). The team also created a five-question survey that students could answer on their smartphones. They intend to use the data in school-wide discussions about what project-based learning requires of teachers and students. And they aim to make student input on teaching a permanent feature at Westside.

Students at Taylor High, another school in Alief, set their sights on increasing global awareness among the student body. Their World Affairs Council became a platform for discussing breaking news stories from other nations; they brought in local speakers to talk about their lives and struggles in countries like Iran and North Korea. “It prepares us for the real world,” says Teju, a tenth grader whose own family came to Texas from Nigeria. “When the time comes for my classmates and I to start our careers, we won’t be competing just with others in the U.S., but with people around the globe. Succeeding today requires a world view.”

Tenth graders at KIPP-Sunnyside (in Houston’s oldest African-American community) targeted—and secured—afterschool transportation so that students could stay for tutorials and extracurricular activities. Concerned about the transition from middle to high school, juniors and seniors at the predominantly Hispanic George Sanchez High School developed a mentoring program for eighth graders.

A student team in the program’s one middle school, Pin Oak, created monthly “cluster chats” designed for parents to learn more about what their children were learning and the supports they needed. The “one thing” they had chosen was improving communication between parents and the school.

At Alief Early College High School, students settled on a goal that had challenged their teachers: using “down and dirty” tutorial techniques, the quality of homework and the completion rate would improve by 20 percent.

Students as shareholders

An increasing body of research backs up the wisdom behind giving students a voice in what happens in their schools. When students feel heard, they feel more valued, the research shows, and when they feel more valued, they become more motivated to participate in school. Kids who become shareholders in their school’s success do better in classes and attend school more regularly.

For Jesse, a senior at Alief’s Kerr High School, welcoming students as investors not only helps students feel more committed personally, it also improves decisions and results for the entire school community. He explains:

The best paradigm for reform in school, I think, is one that involves the students as shareholders. I don’t understand how you can make a decision that affects 800 students—people—as at Kerr, without asking them about it. You can’t solve a problem unless you understand what the problem is. And in a school, the best way to understand a problem is to talk to the people who live the problem every day and are affected directly: the students.

The system that we have—I should say in our society as a whole—is like a pyramid. Decisions are made at the top of the pyramid, then travel down to affect people all along the way, then reach the bottom of the pyramid where they most affect the most people. The people at the top of the pyramid are supposed to be responsible for the welfare of everyone below them. That’s been the organizing theory throughout history, it’s how our society is modeled—not just our schools. But this kind of top-down decision making, in my opinion, often leads to poor decisions and poor solutions.

We need to start thinking of students as shareholders in their education as well as end products. We need a new paradigm. (Read WKCD’s full interview with Jesse.)

Sustaining the momentum sparked by “What If Kids Ran the Schools” will take steadfast effort on the part of both students and their adult champions, American Leadership Forum’s Bob Wimpelberg says. “It’s not just the paradigm shift that is daunting—there’s the planning, resource gathering, time and energy, and relationship building.”

Natalie and Vi will need adult support every step of the way in order to make a real go of their student-run course “Your Future, Now!”

“Creating change, something new, is long and hard work for people of any age,” says Jesse. Without a supportive structure and adult encouragement, he fears, “most students are going to give up and say, ‘Let me just get my grade and go home.’”

For Sue Page, Area Superintendent for the Alief Independent School District, the fact that students were invited to tap their experiences, hopes, and passions gives their projects endurance. "What incredible learning this is for the students!" Page says. "We educators often speak of creating life-long learners and problem-solvers. This program does just that, giving students confidence that, through hard and good work, they can make a difference in their schools—and the world."

What if students were truly welcomed as shareholders in their school’s success? This Houston experiment suggests that we’d all reap the rewards.




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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”

– Deborah Meier, educator