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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Student agency develops democratic character
By Gabriel Frank-McPheter and Luccia Yacoub | May | June 2022
Education is the foundation of democracy. Public schools were founded and fought for in the United States in part to ensure that Americans would receive the education necessary to be responsible civic participants and voters. Yet, most public schools today are far from bastions of democracy. The mantra has been discipline over discourse, the priority making students good workers over good voters. If our democracy is to survive and thrive, it must begin by promoting student agency. Actively involving students in the educational and administrative decisions that impact them will foster the values of collaboration, civic participation and problem-solving that our generation and our democracy direly need.
The role of students in decision making
The San Gabriel Unified School District and schools within it have made this objective of student agency its priority through a variety of initiatives in recent years. Prior to the pandemic, the administration worked with a student to create a new Wellness Center, a safe, calm place for students to de-stress for 15 minutes at any point in the day. Likewise, the district sent out a mental health survey to students and followed up by reaching out and providing support to students who reported poor mental health. Through these actions, not only has the district ameliorated poor student mental health but given them the agency to seek support when they need it.
Furthermore, SGUSD has made receiving student input on key decisions a priority. Poll after poll has been conducted as Gabrielino High School plans for next year’s schedule. Do students prefer block or traditional scheduling? Do they want to continue having “Embedded Time”? Do they want time for a nutrition break? Rather than administrators far removed from the student experience making decisions for students, the students have directly informed the administration’s preparation for the upcoming school year. Block Schedule advocates debate their traditional-schedule-minded peers in the halls. Students become engaged. They learn the value of the vote.
Not only has the district provided students agency through the vote at the high school level, but it has promoted student discussion and discourse at every campus. Middle and high school students participated in the Educational Advisory Committee to craft the district’s “Portrait of a Graduate,” ensuring that students inform the objectives that guide their education. Students on LCAP Committees and School Site Councils provide feedback on funding allocation and voice the concerns of their peers. Students speak at staff development sessions, governing board meetings and the student senate. Wherever and whenever students can be involved in the decision-making process, SGUSD gives them agency.
Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council
This is best exemplified through the Superintendent Student Advisory Council. It aims at using student advocacy to create viable solutions to the challenges that students face across the district. Having a direct stream of dialogue with our superintendent is something that many districts don’t offer, but it has become a crucial means of addressing issues that students face. Members of this committee include students from our district’s elementary schools, middle school and high school. Every month, they meet with Superintendent Mr. Symonds and have conversations on issues such as student mental health, COVID transparency, and equity and inclusion in our district, and brainstorm possible ideas by which we can ameliorate these issues. From there, they meet with their principals to place these solutions into action directly at our own campuses. Needless to say, this committee has been fruitful in showing that this district definitely has some work to do, but the fact that students are able to come collaboratively in such a manner and focus on becoming better is something that makes the district truly unique.
Initiatives administrators and educators can take to further student agency
1. Instilling student advocacy from a young age Even at the elementary level, districts can work to give young students the opportunity to express their concerns through simple tactics such as involving students in classroom decisions. Implanting this in them from a young age allows educators to prepare them for fruitful discourse in their education and democratic future.
2. Gathering student data and putting decisions to a vote Statistical analysis of students' needs creates a stronger system of communication between educators and their stakeholders. Further, the usage of student voting in key decision making establishes a more democratic mode of implementing educational policy.
3. Centering student voice at councils, committees and meetings Administrators should include student members or speakers at existing meetings and committees and create new committees and councils where possible. Doing so will ensure that students have a seat at the decision-making table, that educators and administrators have a clear understanding of students’ perspectives and that students develop collaboration and speaking skills.
The role of discussion in developing ‘A portrait of a graduate’
Perhaps the most unique thing about the district is its vision for students. SGUSD worked diligently to develop its visionary expression of students called the Portrait of a Graduate. In this vision, the district highlights key qualities such as creative thinking, collaboration, global citizenship, empathy, communication and resiliency, which our district hopes to instill in students as they graduate. Without a doubt, student advocacy and engagement in student-administrator discourse has helped students work more towards the image envisioned for us. By using their voices and expressing their opinions, the district works to foster democracy onto campuses, resulting in more resilient and empathetic individuals. Working to create prospective solutions encourages students to think critically and collaboratively, but above all, builds students’ democratic character.

Gabriel Frank-McPheter and Luccia Yacoub attend Gabrielino High School in the San Gabriel Unified School District.
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