How superintendents’ student advisory councils are boosting school morale

Superintendents across the nation are launching advisory councils to listen to students' concerns and give them a role in district decision-making.

Superintendent Robert F. Hill’s student advisory council gives him a chance to do something he doesn’t often get to do. “As a superintendent in a large district, you don’t always get to spend as much time with students or in buildings or classrooms as you would like to,” says Hill, leader of the Springfield City School District near Dayton, Ohio. “With a council of this nature, you’re able to get a better pulse about what’s going on. I would encourage all superintendents to explore creating this type of council.”

A growing number of superintendents across the nation are launching advisory councils to give students a role in district decision-making and to hear directly from learners about their biggest concerns. Springfield City’s superintendent’s student advisory council was launched about five years ago and comprises students from its main high school and its smaller project-based learning high school.

“We meet once a month and we chat about what’s going right, what we could be doing better and we always try to find a focus for the school year,” Hill says. “As leaders, we too often tend to focus on our role as adults when should be focusing on students and what’s best for them and what they need.”

Last school year, the council’s project was providing hygiene products for students in the high-poverty district as well as 100% free lunch. This school year, the student leaders are planning to hold a spring carnival in conjunction with a local NAACP chapter to raise money for scholarships and other assistance. Members of the council have also been instrumental in creating a chess club, a Dungeons & Dragons club and other high school activities.

Students can volunteer to serve on the council and Hill also relies on principals for nominations to ensure the group remains diverse. “It’s a leadership opportunity that allows them to be a voice for their classmates and the school,” Hill explains. “You really want to make sure you have a very diverse group of students because everyone has different experiences, needs and perceptions of how school is running and whether their needs are being met.”

Student advisory councils provide a safe space

The Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council at San Juan USD near Sacramento, California, is a sign to the community that students’ perspectives are prioritized and valued by the district’s leaders and educators, “We’ve created a safe space with these students where they feel comfortable emailing me with concerns and ideas,” Superintendent Kent Kern says. “I’m here to listen and to create opportunities for change.”

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San Juan USD launched its student advisory council in the 2017-18 school year and its members have tackled issues such as mental wellness, finding trusted adults on campus and enhancing student communication channels. The council, which comprises two students from each San Juan USD high school, recently launched a student podcast and social media accounts and has also created scholarship opportunities. The group is currently working on updating the district’s dress code. Highlights include:

  • 2017-18: Created a survey to identify the social-emotional and academic needs of high school students.
  • 2018-19: All of San Juan USD’s high schools now have their own branded app, which was the council’s solution for removing barriers to student communication.
  • 2019-20: Creating a “Find Your Trusted Adult” campaign to support the social-emotional needs of teens. The initiative, however, was cut short by COVID.
  • 2020-21: Established a San Juan Student podcast and scholarships for graduating seniors that have awarded 40 students $500 each over the last two years. The council also established a Student Speakers Series on how students were dealing with the impacts of COVID.

The dress code has been the council’s project this school year and last. It surveyed 4,500 students to gather their views on the dress code, how it’s enforced and whether it should be updated.

Each summer, more than 100 students apply to serve on the council and their applications are reviewed by the existing council members. “Students bring feedback, perspectives and ideas from their own experience at their high school to share with me and other members of district leadership. This has provided us the opportunity to elevate student voice and create opportunities for systemic change,” says Kern, who shared feedback from students on how serving on the council, also known as the SSAC, has benefitted them:

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  • “Being on San Juan’s Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council has benefitted me because it allows me to voice out our school’s strengths and weaknesses, and it enables me to represent a whole community. Since I was younger, I’ve always strived to make a difference in my community, whether that has to do with providing resources for students or offering tutoring sessions for kids who can’t afford it. Having the ability to advocate for all students on my school’s campus ensures that the students will have supportive staff members and a safe space, which will encourage strong student achievement.”
  • “I feel as if being on this council has made me care about things in my life more. Seeing everyone there actively trying to improve schooling has made me stop looking at things like ‘this sucks’ but more ‘I don’t like this, how could it be changed?’”
  • “I think the most impactful aspect of this council is the group of students we have. Having the opportunity to work with like-minded people who are motivated to resolve issues and improve the school system has further inspired me to make change [happen]. Being able to share my ideas with others and hear what they have to bring to the table has helped to create the active and driven mindset that SSAC values. Without my fellow council members, it would be impossible to accomplish our goals. This council exposed me to teamwork at its finest; we are all putting our ideas and efforts into one larger goal: progress.”
  • “This council has given me an outlet to share my concerns regarding the school system and environment. Prior to joining, I felt like I had no place to voice my concerns, and when I did—be it through a survey, a teacher, or even the principal—I felt as if they went nowhere. By becoming part of SSAC, my voice is not only being heard by the right people, but I am able to see development regarding the issues I bring up as well as actively involve myself in solving them.”
  • “Being on the SSAC has given me a new perspective on issues at my school that I didn’t recognize before, and helps me consider how we can make our schools more inclusive and welcoming to everyone.”
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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