Participatory Budgeting Takes Different Forms in Middle and High School

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.

Jennifer Burdette, a middle and high school social studies teacher at Spoon River Valley Jr/Sr High School facilitated the PB project first at her high school.  Her students then facilitated local middle school students through the same process. We asked her questions to document her experience. Here are her responses.

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

This project was conducted with both our high school and middle school students. In the high school there were two sections of seniors in Current Events who were named as the steering committee to lead the process for the school. In junior high it was our Student Council who became the steering committee. 

In both instances students were told that they had been given a budget of $2,000 that they could use to improve their school however they saw fit. As the steering committee, it was up to them to help narrow down a list of ideas that they would take to administration for approval and ultimately the student body would vote on how to spend their money. The high school focused on a variety of ideas from the physical space of the school, to the needs of students, educational opportunities and ways to impact the overall climate. The junior high focused much more on improving the physical space of the school. 

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

The gathering information and conducting research was done in very similar manners for both groups of students. The students were tasked with going out into the school, essentially in school “field trips”, where they observed the physical space and interacted with members of their school. As students browsed the school they made lists of what changes or improvements they could see making. They also asked students or teachers they came in contact with to give input on how they would spend the money. After initial observations were made, students created opportunities for the larger student body to give feedback so that as many voices as possible were heard. The high school steering committee gathered this feedback by hosting a lunch table where students could complete a Google form and ask questions about what they were doing. Additionally, they offered candy to students who came up and engaged with them to learn about the project. The junior high steering committee opted to send out a Google form to their peers. 

Once all the data was collected, students were asked to evaluate their ideas. They had to weed out which ideas were great ideas but beyond their budget, which ideas were not feasible, and which ideas should remain in the running. The steering committee then voted to narrow down the list to ideas they thought were most worth pursuing. 

Then students were divided into teams to work on the idea they most supported and conduct feasibility research to bring to administration. Each team was given a form that asked them to consider: 

  • their rationale for the use of the money
  • questions they would need to consider regarding implementation of the project
  • items needed to put it into action
  • whether we had the items or needed to purchase them
  • costs of any purchases
  • stakeholders
  • challenges they foresee in implementing the project
  • positive impacts it will have on the school
  • time needed to implement the project
  • questions administration will ask them
  • how the proposal should be worded on the ballot 

Students conducted Internet research as well as talked with staff members who would be impacted by their projects as part of the research process

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

Going into the presentations to administration, many of the students had the attitude that administration was not going to be open to listening to their ideas or they might shut down their projects. However, the conversations and discussions that took place as part of the presentations helped students better understand why administration has to say no to some of their ideas. It helped shift students’ views from administration is against us to administration is also bound by certain rules and regulations and those are what prevent some of the ideas. As one student stated, “I used to think that our school’s issues were caused solely by financial burdens, but now I realize that it is almost as much of an issue with legalities as it is with money.

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

This project helped students understand how to work towards a common goal and that collaboration and determination can achieve results. As a student stated, “Before this Participatory Budgeting Project, I used to think that all we need to make this school better is a little money… but now I think that what really counts is the number of people working towards the goal. It’s often not about the money, because effort is worth just as much.” 

Additionally for some students the hardest lesson to learn was that in a democracy your “favorite” doesn’t always win. “This helped to work with some of my fellow students and learn how to compromise on certain things. “ and “I learned that a lot of the other kids in my school have different views of what would make our school a better place. Some students value learning in the classroom more, and other students value motivation in the school, both inside and outside of class. I also learned that a lot of students here love coffee. :)”

How did your students apply what they learned from going through the participatory budgeting project to guide their middle school peers through the process?

To repeat the process with the junior high we utilized junior high study hall time and had the Student Council meet in my classroom once a week along with the junior high Student Council advisor. The seniors were divided amongst the junior high students to serve as mentors and guides on the sides. They offered advice to the students, gave insights on their experiences and were available to serve as researchers. Their advice was especially helpful when brainstorming projects as they knew which topics wouldn’t be good projects based on prior administrator feedback and they were able to help the junior high students prepare for the administration presentations. 

Were there any particular challenges in facilitating this process in middle school vs. high school?

The biggest challenge we faced with junior high was in relation to time constraints. With the high school I had the students in class so it was easier to set aside time for the project. Conducting the budgeting with students not in my classroom was already a challenge but then we had testing and other school events that slowed down our progress. 


Did you reach out to any other stakeholders in the building to implement your project?

Michelle Olson, our school’s Business teacher became an important partner in our PB project.  Ms. Olson explains, “As one of the teachers working with the students to put their ideas into motion, it was a fun and enlightening process. Mrs. Burdette and I worked with the students to come up with a menu, pricing, recipes and a name for our coffee shop. This helped the students to see that there are many things that go into starting and running a business. We involved the students in all aspects of the business including inventory tracking, quality control, pricing, customer service, implementation of an ordering system and tracking sales and profits with spreadsheets. We will continue to build on our model and involve more students in the process next year as the project continues to expand and grow.”


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

Don’t fear the unknown! The process the first time through was a little bit of a learning curve in figuring out what worked best for students brainstorming and how to go about the project. However, the pride students have in their coffee shop and seeing them take an active role in running a business in the school has been well worth it. With the (hopeful) support of our School Board, I hope to repeat the process in the future to continue to give students the opportunity to take more ownership of their school.