Student Voice 360

The  Illinois Democracy Schools Network continues its 2022-23 C.L.A.D. (Civic Learning Across Disciplines) webinar series focusing on Student Voice.  In the fourth session, Heather VanBenthursen, Director of Chicago Public Schools Department of Social Science and Civic Engagement, explored the Student Voice 360 initiative, guidance that was designed and driven by a vision for student voices and perspectives to be elevated as valued members of the school community. 

Heather began her discussion of the topic by noting that–in any school–students are the largest group of stakeholders, yet they are often a negligible part of the decision-making.  Their voice is often not heard at all,  or reduced to weighing in on minor issues; sometimes, students are asked for input after decisions have already been made.  This is a squandered opportunity, as the benefits of bringing students into the process are numerous: an improved sense of belonging, readiness for college/career/civic life, better attendance and reduced rates of chronic absenteeism, and eventually, healthier engagement in the broader society and its democratic system.  

What exactly is student voice? Chicago Public Schools defines STUDENT VOICE as: 

The valuing and prioritizing of youth values, beliefs, perspectives, participation, and influence in all aspects of schooling. Student voice is core to classroom, schoolwide, district, & community improvement & decision-making.

In order to advance this vision, they have embedded an infrastructure at both the district level and in individual schools (Student Advisory Council, Student Voice committees, etc.)  Several frameworks that further support this work are explained in detail in the Student Voice 360 Toolkit, which considers these essential questions about student voice:

What is required for sustainable, impactful student voice? 

  • While there are many ways to cultivate a school culture that values students as collaborative community members and decision-makers, first and foremost it begins with listening to students’ perspectives, values, and beliefs. It is through listening that we develop trusting and respectful relationships upon which a strong student voice infrastructure can be built.

What are the opportunities for student voice?

  • Student voice is a broad term describing a range of activities that can occur in classrooms and school-wide activities. Whereas traditional schooling seeks to change the student in some way, either through learning, shifting perspectives, or altering behaviors, student voice activities position students as the agents of change.

How responsive are adults to student voice?

  • Hart’s Ladder is a model that serves as an assessment, reflection and aspirational tool to assist schools in their efforts to strengthen student-adult partnerships. The ladder rung on which schools, classrooms, groups, or activities lie will depend on a variety of factors, e.g topic, time, experience of students and adults in shared decision-making, etc.  As one moves up the ladder, the  capacity for meaningful youth-adult partnerships grows.

Other resources referenced in the presentation included:

  • Inquiry to Action framework: A guide for implementing service learning projects within course content
  • Really Listening to Students Has an Academic Payoff, New Research Finds”: Research confirms the link between acting on students’ feedback and their academic success, strengthening arguments for incorporating student voice into school improvement efforts.
  • Participatory Budgeting: This is another way to engage student voice. Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which students decide how to spend a part of the school budget. Students collect ideas about the school’s needs, develop project proposals, and vote on projects to fund.

If you missed the webinar, you can access a recording on the Illinois Democracy Schools Network Webinar archive.

The Illinois Civics Hub and the Illinois Democracy Schools Network continue their commitment to host free after-school PD from our expert civic partners, A description for each webinar and information to register for professional development credits through the DuPage Regional Office of Education is available on the Illinois Civics Hub Professional Development Calendar. 

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