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High School Turnaround: Students Taking Charge for Change

School leaders often talk about the importance of strong student voice in their schools.

Bringing students into conversations about academics, culture, school safety, and discipline, the thinking goes, will instill in students a sense of responsibility when it comes to their schools and their fellow students—and improve school performance.

While most districts promote the idea of student voice, many struggle to foster authentic engagement. Amid shrinking budgets and increasing competition, school leaders are taking a hard look at the role students can play in improving the school experience.

That’s what happened at Pittsfield Middle High School in New Hampshire. As Emelina Minero reports in Edutopia, the rural combined middle and high school was the fifth-lowest rated high school in the state and faced real problems with student attendance and discipline. It also recently lost nearly 40 percent of its enrollment and associated state budget funding when a nearby town decided to no longer send its students to the school.

Looking for fresh ideas, veteran superintendent John Freeman developed a community-first approach to school improvement that invited input from community members, parents, and especially students.

Freeman and his team employed primarily three strategies to encourage stronger, more engaged student voices:

1. Include student input in decisions on school rules and regulations

To encourage student voice, Pittsfield administrators launched the Site Council, an initiative that invites elected and appointed students and community members to deliberate on school policies not governed by the local school board or the state.

Students are expected to engage with their peers to include the perspectives of all students, and bring those ideas to regular meetings.

As Savannah, a Site Council student member, told Edutopia, “Most students have very loud opinions, but they won’t tend to share it with the rest of the school. So I figured that students can come to me so I can get their opinions. And, when I vote, it’s not just my opinion, it’s my entire class’s.”

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2. Giving students a larger role in discipline

The Justice Committee is another student-led body that aims to reduce disciplinary actions like suspensions by spurring dialogue between students to resolve conflict.

When conflicts arise, participating students meet with a teacher mediator and two students trained to facilitate the conversation. The idea is to hear out both sides of a conflict, find common ground, and avoid traditional punishment or discipline when possible.

At the conclusion of these committee sessions, students must come to an agreement and sign a contract. Later they must reappear before the committee to gauge their progress.

3. Competency-based grading

Pittsfield administrators have also introduced a competency-based grading system to empower students.

Unlike the traditional letter-grade approach, where students receive general letter grades at the end of the semester, teachers identify five to seven competencies that students should comprehend by the end of a course. Students are then able to select a test, paper, or other project to demonstrate their mastery of that material. The idea is to give students more agency over their own learning.

As tenth-grade economics teacher Erin Bozek tells Edutopia, “It’s a more equitable system for assessing student understanding, and it also puts the ownership of the learning in kids’ hands.”

But is the approach working?

So far, school leaders say that academic results are mixed. But the school has noticed a significant reduction in its drop-out rate. And, student engagement, and the amount of students earning early-college credit, both have increased, administrators say.

For more on Pittsfield’s approach to student voice, check out the video report below:

What steps does your school or district take to engage students? Would you consider any of these approaches? Tell us in the comments.