Giving Students A Voice

Steve Lamb

Children are the future. Our biggest assets. And our best hope of making the world a better place. As a leader in education, this isn’t news to you. In fact, it’s something you live and dream about day in and day out. Yet it’s always a good reminder for us all to remember just how important it is that our students’ voices be heard and their participation in shaping our communities be enabled.

There are three good reasons to involve youth in important decisions that impact them and their broader communities. Number one, philosophically, I, and the organization I represent (ThoughtExchange) believe that everyone impacted by a decision should have the opportunity to participate in it; regardless of age. Two, great ideas can come from anyone; again, regardless of age. Youth are a great wealth of information and offer diverse perspectives from our own. And three, is that one of the best ways to empower youth is to give them useful roles within the community.

Empowered youth lead to contributing adults

In 1990, the Search Institute introduced the “40 Developmental Assets” which “identifies a set of skills, experiences, relationships, and behaviours that enable young people to develop into successful and contributing adults”. Through their research, they collected stats from 150,000 surveys of students in grades 6-12, from 200 American cities.

The graph below demonstrates just how impactful these developmental assets are when it comes to producing a generation of kids who exhibit leadership, focus on their health, value diversity and do well in school.

Thriving Indicators

And this second graph illustrates the kinds of problems that can arise when these assets aren’t made available for kids. The downside is devastatingly apparent.

High Risk Behaviors

Among the 40 are three key assets that focus on empowerment; which as we now know leads to higher likelihood that these youth will contribute to our communities as adults:

1. Community Values Youth – Young person perceives that adults in the community value youth.
2. Youth as Resources – Young people are given useful roles in the community.
3. Service to Others – Young person serves in the community one hour or more per week.

My experience as evidence

To demonstrate how beneficial and influential our kids can be when it comes to community planning and decision-making, I’d like to share a personal story of mine.

From 2002 to 2006, I provided oversight for the Rural Community Schools Partnership, funded by The Ford Family Foundation. I worked with 16 communities across Oregon on the development of lifelong learning, after school, service learning, and other community school programs; one of which was the community of Powers, OR, tucked into the coast range of Coos County. Despite the County having initially agreed to provide $40,000 for one of the school district’s programs – just before the pitch was to be made to the commissioners for the funding – the superintendent was unofficially told that the program would be unlikely to get the full amount promised. In fact, he was told they’d be lucky to get $30,000.

But in came the kids. The superintendent didn’t make the pitch, nor did the project coordinator. It was the youth involved in the project who explained what they were doing and had planned. They never once looked to an adult to help with any of the questions posed by the commissioners. If one student stumbled for an answer, another student stepped forward with the information. And they walked out with a whopper of a check for $62,000.

So why did the commissioners loosen the purse-strings? Because they saw the value of the project? Maybe. But more likely because they saw how much it meant to the students, and the benefit it would bring to the community by allowing these promising citizens with the opportunity to grow and develop by participating in, and running, the program. And no doubt the students gained a strong sense of value to their community as well.

A good reminder for us all

So what’s the moral of my story? As leaders in education, we all know how important student contributions are to our communities, yet it’s always a good reminder that we continue to push the status quo, and to find new and innovative ways of giving students a voice.

It’s also good for us to remember how powerful stories can be when uniting and engaging communities. Stories about student success are feel-good experiences. They are the kind of things that school boards, staff, and the community love to hear. They help to promote community confidence in our education system, promote support for our schools, and improve staff morale. And as research shows, these experiences help students thrive. We simply need more opportunities to showcase student abilities beyond the sports and concert venues.

Students are an integral part of our community. If we don’t involve them in our community engagement process, we’re missing a big part of our communities’ voice. Ask your stakeholder community to consider how to get youth more actively involved. Consider asking them questions like:

  • “What are some opportunities for youth to be of service to the community?”
  • “What are some opportunities for youth to showcase their abilities and growth within the community?”
  • “What are some opportunities for youth to contribute to or enhance their own learning?”

How are you engaging the students in your community?

About the Author

Steve Lamb

Steve has nearly 40 years of community engagement experience in such fields as juvenile justice, children services, mental health and education. He most recently served as a board development specialist for the Oregon School Boards Association. Steve believes in starting with what you have (asset mapping), not what you need, making the best use of what you already have before requesting access to more, involving everyone to the degree they desire using techniques that make even the smallest contributions valuable in the aggregate and celebrating success, both for the warm feelings and the opportunity to discuss next steps. In his spare time, Steve has started writing ‘The Snowflake Effect’ and occasionally picks up the guitar.