Listening to Students

Far too often in conversations about schools, educators talk about students rather than with students. The worlds of student leadership and school change orbit in separate universes. At the Coalition of Essential Schools,we have sought to alter this dynamic by engaging youth along with adults in the tasks of creating and transforming schools. In our experience, the most powerful schools are places where students share ownership of what happens there, where space is made for their voices to be heard and heeded.

As a school developer, CES encourages meaningful youth participation in our network meetings and professional development, and we ask our new school design teams and schools to do the same. This November, we are hosting our third Youth Forum during Fall Forum—as before, our student interns from local Bay Area schools are the Youth Forum’s facilitators. Last year, over one hundred youths from CES schools around the country and the world participated.

Youth leaders also play an important role in our annual week-long Summer Institute, assisting in the individual design work involved in their own particular schools, and facilitating and attending workshops alongside the adults. And they come together as a group to grow their leadership, share experiences and practices from their respective schools, and make recommendations to the Summer Institute participants as a whole. In these essays, Jurion Jaffe from Harmony School gives a taste of the Summer Institute experience and offers a persuasive argument for youth leadership in schools.

Schools can move beyond the traditional model of student leadership in which students plan dances and the prom to a model in which students are involved in essential functions like helping to shape classroom instruction, evaluate teachers and plan a large school’s conversion into small schools. We have seen this kind of meaningful student engagement among many different kinds of students in a variety of school settings and geographical regions. For example, students at Humanities Prep, a diverse public high school in New York City, serve on the school’s “Fairness Committee” to which anyone, youth or adult, may be brought if one of the school’s core values is violated. At Connections Public Charter School, a new school in Hilo, Hawaii, students lead Critical Friends Groups and teach classes. Students at Eagle Rock School, an independent residential school in Estes Park, Colorado, lead the orientation for both students new to the school and adults visiting the professional development center. On the ARISE High School design team for a new charter school opening next year in Oakland, California, students are creating and running the hiring process for teachers.

This issue of Horace is one way of asking the broader network of educators who are a part of the Coalition of Essential Schools to listen to young people, create spaces where student leadership can grow and serve as allies. Not only is this a critical component of fully enacting the common principle of “Democracy and Equity” but it is also a way to get your students fully engaged and make your classroom and school more successful. We hope that these students’ words will inspire you in this work.

Laura Flaxman joined CES in 2003 as the Co-Director of the Small Schools Project after serving as the founding principal at Life Academy and teaching in and leading change efforts in middle and high schools in New York City, Boston and Oakland. Currently, Laura is working on a book project at CES and helping to launch ARISE High School, a new small school opening in Oakland in the fall of 2007, where she plans to be principal.