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Promoting student voice and volunteerism

Listening to customers matters in education

By Ruzanna Hernandez | September | October 2020
If we are trying to build tomorrow’s leaders today, one of the best ways to do it is by having a student leadership group on campus. It can begin in elementary school and go as far as adult education, and beyond. I have worked as a classified employee, teacher and now as an administrator at Fontana Adult School for 12 years. I am currently at Fontana Adult School serving as the assistant principal. I love going to various school sites at Fontana Unified School District and seeing young, bright students in Associated Student Body classes or clubs. There is even a student board member serving on the Board of Directors.  In the private sector, the customers’ voice matters, and makes an impact upon the organization. For instance, if a retail store is seeing a need to stay open later because of customer demand, a change takes place. This is how the company keeps its customers. If a grocery store is getting requests to have a bakery opened, based on customer demand, it will address it. In education, particularly public education, our “customers” are our students and their voices must be heard. One of the best ways to address this is by promoting various student leadership teams or structures on campus. Here are some ideas:
  • Create “Let Your Voice be Heard meetings” on your campus and have a student representative meet at a specific location, preferably during homeroom, to ask questions and receive feedback on what is happening at your site. We had something similar begin at Fontana Adult School by Mrs. Cynthia Gleason and Mr. Richard Roth in 2017. If it can be done at an adult school site, it can be done at all other school sites. The teachers can select the student to send to the meeting so student voices can be well-represented and wide-ranging. 
  • Start a Principal Advisory Committee and have students who are interested in giving their feedback and advice join. Meetings can be held once each month or once every two months to get feedback and advice from students. 
  • Promote student volunteerism on campus by forming a club. The club name can include the school name or mascot. Anytime help is needed with projects and activities on campus, these students can assist. Many school sites rely on their ASB students to do most of the volunteerism. However, relying on these kids to do most of the work can be very taxing on their time and health. Getting a volunteer team on campus can help you build capacity as a leader.
  • Have a Club Advisory Group to have one representative from each club come together once each quarter and talk about their upcoming events and provide feedback with what is happening on campus. I have seen some wonderful groups and clubs formed by teachers on school grounds. They do some awesome work. However, the clubs need to come together once in a while to talk about their activities and hear from others. 
  • To hear students’ voices, consider holding a brief survey that can be completed online at least once each semester. The surveys can be anonymous and really help you identify student needs and issues. By having student surveys at Fontana Adult School, we learned that we had a need for a culinary program. We put the necessary parts in place to start having a culinary pathway over the course of a year. We would not have known the demand was there had we not heard from our students. Serving as promoters will help them build confidence as public speakers and introduce them to the world of marketing.
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  • Have a group of students serve only as promoters of your school by going to fairs, off-site meetings (like chambers of commerce), and other networking meetings. Many public schools are under attack for underperforming on standardized exams. We, as administrators, know the amazing work taking place each and every day with our students. The good work happening on campus should not go unnoticed; students can be the promoters of the good things happening at our school sites each day. They can be school promoters or advocates. 
  • Have a recognition event for those staff members and students who serve as club advisers. Many of the staff members serve as advisers on a volunteer basis without extra compensation or reward. Having a recognition event—perhaps a banquet—or having them recognized at one of the school functions, would help them see how much they are needed and valued at your school site. 
  • Hold occasional focus groups as randomized as possible about major school issues and needs. For example, what do students look for in their aides? What do students value about their teachers? How do students feel about the cleanliness of their school? You can choose a random classroom to visit once each month to get important feedback. You can then take the feedback you get and present that directly to the staff members who are impacted. Their response can also help you when you are in the process of hiring new employees. 
If we are trying to build tomorrow’s leaders today, one of the best ways to do it is by having a student leadership group on campus. 
By having students involved in various ways, we are helping them as much as they are helping us. There are many benefits for as many students to be involved on campus as possible, particularly in larger-sized campuses: 
  • By serving on teams and volunteer organizations on campus, students are learning leadership skills they can carry on in their personal and professional lives.
  • Students will develop college and career readiness skills by serving on leadership and volunteer teams.
  • The school site is building capacity by having students serve as leaders and volunteers on campus. 
  • When it’s WASC accreditation time, you will have no problem showing you have students’ voices in decision-making.
  • For those who are applying to universities, they will show they are involved in extra-curricular activities by serving as volunteers or in various committees. 
  • The work the students do can help them with résumé-building skills and activities to become more employable in the future.
  • Students will be exposed to skills and knowledge beyond what they do in their classrooms. 
  • You will build a much better school climate and culture by having student voices heard.
  • There will be better student advocacy and school promotion in your community and city.
  • Your school will be valued by parents and community organizations because of your willingness to listen to a student’s voice and respond to their needs. 
  • School engagement is often linked to school achievement. 
  • Being involved and volunteering at school will help students be involved as adults in their everyday lives and help them become altruistic individuals.
Remember: Students are valuable stakeholders. We have to hear them out even when it’s uncomfortable. We have to receive their input and feedback and help them help us to promote our schools and programs. One of the best lessons I learned from writing my doctoral dissertation a few years ago on parent volunteerism at the high school level was the power of asking. One of my interviewees said to me, “If you ask 10 people to help or to serve as volunteers, perhaps three would say they can’t, but seven will say they can. You just have to ask directly.” Let’s ask for student voice and response, and let’s promote their involvement and volunteerism at our school sites.
Ruzanna Hernandez is an assistant principal at Fontana Adult School
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© 2020 Association of California School Administrators