Editor’s note: This essay is part of The Seattle Times’ Student Voices program for youth writers. Meet the authors and read the other 2022 essays at st.news/studentvoices2022.

Schools are designed for students, but policies are primarily designed by officials who may be far-removed from the students affected by these policies. These rules can fail to recognize student needs, rendering them ineffective. This is why student voices are so critical in educational decision-making.

Pavan Venkatakrishnan, one of two student board members on the Washington State Board of Education (SBE) says “it is hard on any level to make policy if you don’t know who is impacted.” Venkatakrishnan, who has developed and proposed policies in his role as a board member, adds that not talking to those who are impacted — in this case, students — “makes for policy that isn’t responsive and policy that ultimately isn’t effective.”

Senior Leo Ohata, an Associated Student Body officer at my high school, Sammamish High, believes school administrators have a responsibility to listen to students. “When the district makes decisions, it’s important to include student voice[s] because at the end of the day, it’s not impacting them, it’s impacting the future,” Ohata says.

Giving students the space to air grievances can bring attention to issues before they explode into a problem. For example, Seattle Public Schools students protested back in January about COVID protocols, and again in March about the removal of the mask mandate. Although it is impossible to make everyone happy, having a space for students to discuss these issues ahead of time and be part of the decision-making process would help mitigate the need for students to protest to be heard by schools. 

So, how do we do this?

The Center for American Progress recommends eight strategies to use at school, district, and state levels to increase student voices in instruction and policy decisions. The strategies include student surveys, student representatives on governing bodies, and student governments.

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I surveyed 97 high school students in Washington state to determine which of these strategies they believe would be most effective. Forty-one percent of students supported a districtwide student school board with voting power. To be effective, student boards require multiple student representatives from diverse backgrounds and different schools, all with equal power. These boards can give student activists a place to have concerns addressed in a collaborative setting with their peers, allowing student experiences and needs to be considered when making district decisions.

The Bellevue School District’s superintendent advisory council includes several student delegates, but the positions are “invitational” and students must be recommended by their school’s administrators. While this gives student leaders like Ohata an incredible opportunity to advise district leadership about curriculum development and other issues, the scope of representation is limited to students known by administrators. Ohata, who joined the council in the fall of 2021, was recommended by Sammamish Principal Derrick Richardson after speaking in front of the School Board about the transition from online to in-person school.

To make student leadership positions more impactful and less exclusive, they should be open to everyone in the district and students should be elected by their peers. Students in these roles must also actively seek input from the general student body to make representative change.

On the State Board of Education, student members previously had an advisory vote which was cast before the official vote. The student vote did not count, but represented the students’ opinions. This past legislative session, Venkatakrishnan and his fellow student board member McKenna Roberts pushed for full voting rights through Senate Bill 5497. Though they received some pushback from legislators who believed it was unnecessary to give students the right to vote, the bill ultimately passed and was recently signed into law.

Venkatakrishnan says he respects the differing opinions they got during the process, and hopes that student board members can prove through their work that it was a “worthwhile reform.”

The change to the state law is a big step toward giving students more of a voice that other student leadership programs should look to follow. In Washington, opportunities exist on the school, district, and state levels for students to voice their opinions, but not always to address systemic issues. For example, at Sammamish High School, class officers — students from each grade who are elected by their peers — spend the bulk of their time planning spirit weeks, school events, and dances. Although they have been involved in some important decisions like giving feedback on district-mandated Social Emotional Learning lessons, they are less involved with developing and improving school policy.

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While it is up to individual students in leadership roles to make the positions meaningful, schools must also empower youth to take the lead on important issues. To create a culture with a focus on student voices, John Harrison, executive director for district and community affairs for Bellevue Schools, recommends that students and administrators have open conversations, and “codesign and co-construct student centeredness.” 

Emphasis must be placed on promoting opportunities for students to get involved, as lack of knowledge and awareness can hinder the effectiveness of student leadership programs. While some of the burden is on students to research available opportunities and show they are ready to take on leadership responsibilities, it is also on program organizers and schools to promote these roles. Using social media and their websites, they should highlight who to contact about specific issues and explain how the decision-making process works.

The journey to giving students a place in educational decision-making still has a long way to go. However, we are moving in the right direction. 

“I think [district leadership is] doing a good job of [incorporating student voice] so far, or at least they are taking steps in the right direction,” says Ohata. “From my perspective, since I’ve taken part in some of that, I can see that, but other students may not feel the same way, and their voice is just as important.” 

Get involved

Students: Here’s how to use your voice

To help lead change in education, check out these opportunities throughout Washington and talk with your school about open positions on boards and in student government. 

Washington State Board of Education (SBE) Student Board Member: Two student positions available. Applications for a two-year term open each spring to sophomores. They are open to Eastern Washington applicants in even years and Western Washington applicants in odd years. Students focus on educational policy that impacts the entire state. 

Association of Washington Student Leaders (AWSL): Applications open year round. Opportunities include an equity cohort and a student advisory council which supports curriculum development across the state and provides support for SBE student members.

Washington State Legislative Youth Advisory Council (LYAC): Open to applicants in grades 8-10. Members serve two-year terms and develop and support legislation that impacts youth in all aspects, not just education. 

Seattle Times Student Voices: Share your opinions about how schools can better serve students through journalism. Check for applications late summer or early fall. Open to high school and college students attending public schools in the state of Washington.

Bellevue Youth Council: Also known as Bellevue Youth Link, applications are open year round. Organizes community service projects and collaborates with Bellevue City Council to provide student input and advice. 

Know of other opportunities for students to get involved? Let us know at edlab@seattletimes.com, and we’ll keep this list updated.

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