ESL Students Exercise Agency with Participatory Budgeting

This past fall, the Illinois Civics Hub along with our research-practice partners (RPP) at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University were awarded funds to pilot Participatory Budgeting in three of our Illinois Democracy Schools.  The National Network of Educational Research Practice Partnerships (NNERPP) at Rice University.  The Youth Voice for RPPs Award program recognizes, honors, and further supports existing RPP efforts that have a strong interest in and/or currently support youth involvement in RPP work.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) engages students in deciding how to spend funds to benefit the school community. School PB develops student leadership, supports student and school success, lifts up student voice, and involves the entire school in meaningful civic experiences.

Mark Poulterer, a high school English as a Second Language teacher at West Chicago Community High School facilitated the PB project with students in his Study Skills classes. We asked him questions to document his experience. Here are his responses.

Briefly describe your Participatory Budgeting Project. Please include the need your project was addressing in your school.

Students were invited to participate from the ESL study skills classes.  They were divided into three groups.  The main idea was allowing students to come up with something that they  thought was important.  It was not easy to get the ball rolling because this was not something these students had ever been asked to do before.  The school provided a space for the students and they had to decide how to best use it. They came up with three different projects.

  • First, a room where students could go and research and discuss future plans.  One of the boys in the group said, “So if I want to work for Ferrari in the future, how would I get there?”  They wanted a computer in the room, as well as an adult who could counsel them.


  • Second was a student lounge.  We called this a “Calming Room” to make it more palatable to the administration.  The students designed a room with couches, games, posters, and a TV.  Although there are numerous spaces for students to hang out in the building, they are all designed by adults.  The students wanted to design their own space.


  • Third was what the students called a “Papeleria” (Stationary Store).  They would have cool stationary for sale as well as other items that students need regularly, like pens and pencils.  They also wanted to purchase a 3D printer that students could use for a small fee.  They would have display cases and a small refrigerator with snacks.

The students ended up voting for the calming room.

How did students go about gathering information to inform their decision?  What research did they conduct? What stakeholders did they engage with?

Once students agreed to participate in the project, they got into groups and started with a weekly four square with some questions about the school.  They brainstormed these weekly questions once a week for a month.

The second step was to take a couple of field trips to different things that were taking place in the high school and local middle school.  We visited the shirt printing presses that are completely run by students.  Then we visited the BAM (Becoming a Man Room) in the middle school.  (This room was mentioned by students during the brainstorming questions.)

The following weeks were dedicated to discussing in their groups what they would do with a space in the building that the school agreed to give them for the project, and to create a budget for the items their ideas would cost.

FInally they shared the project with the other ESL students in the building and voted.

Were there any challenges that students had to overcome?  If so, what was their strategy?

The first challenge was actually getting students engaged.  Surprisingly it took more convincing than I had anticipated.  I became aware that the students didn’t truly believe they were going to be handed a real  $2000 for the project.  Once they understood this wasn’t a math word problem, rather an actual opportunity for them to spend money on something they would like to see in the building they became more engaged.

One student was early on when one of the most reluctant participants asked, “Wait.  So this is a real 2000 dollars?”  This is when I realized that these students have never been asked to participate in anything that would directly impact the school or their learning.

My students are not the natural leaders in our high school.  Some of them have leadership qualities, but due to being new to the school, country, and in many cases having less English they tend to keep to themselves.  Asking them to make decisions on something like this was challenging for them.  I think what helped them the most was that as we talked, they began to feel that as an adult I was genuinely interested in their ideas and what they had to say.

How did this project deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their school community?

Students who have never thought about their future, or how the school impacts their future began to think about what the school could do for them.  I think for once they felt that they could impact something in the school, rather than just floating through the four years.

One student who had been largely apathetic, failing most classes in the first semester, began to think about this project and what it could mean for him.  He mentioned a place where he could discuss his future career and how he would get there.  I realized he had no knowledge of the college and career center in the building.  He didn’t understand the role of his counselor.  This will be an ongoing conversation next year.

What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in participatory budgeting?

I would say, find kids that are not the class presidents, and captains of the volleyball team.  Find the ones who are quiet, unengaged, and pull their gifts from them.  Help them to realize that they have something to offer the school.  At graduation I heard one of the class leaders announce the Senior Class Gift.  The exciting part of this project is that the students who will never be the ones on stage at graduation are investing in their school, and sharing a gift with their classmates that they will be able to use, rather than leave behind.