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Giving Students a Voice and Empowering Them to Take Action

By April 17, 20194 min read

Written by Jill Johnson, Assistant Principal at Seward High School

Schools benefit when students share their voices, but how often do we take the time to truly listen to what they have to say? The Quaglia Institute suggests that students are seven times more academically motivated when they believe their voices are heard as compared to students who do not. How might we integrate student voice into the way schools work while also honoring what students have to say?

At Seward High School in Seward, NE, we strive to hear the many voices of our students. We provide opportunities for students to develop their voices and ask them to play an active role in their education while building a community of learners and leaders. Here’s our story:

Establishing the Bluejay Leadership Team

Earlier this year, our building administrative team wanted to find ways to invigorate our current student council structure and empower student voice and action throughout the entire school. To address these needs, we formed the Bluejay Leadership Team, with the purpose of providing students a platform to not only share their voice but also to shape our SHS story.

Here’s how the Bluejay Leadership Team works. Students submit applications to be a candidate for the Bluejay Leadership Team. Next, the student body votes democratically for their desired candidate through an electronic ballot. Our group is comprised of 17 members and is advised by myself and Ms. Kristen Upton, a classroom teacher who assists the team. Students meet monthly for 45 minutes during a dedicated meeting period on campus.

Defining a Student Vision

The Bluejay Leadership Team starts each year by working through a process to define who we are as a school and how we want to tell our story. Students identify when our school is at its best and for what we want to be known.  This year, the team adopted this statement for our vision: “We will respect each other’s diverse interests while positively encouraging our classmates and competitors through sportsmanship, citizenship, and innovative practices.” Once these desires are clarified, the team attaches action words to these statements in order to outline their vision for the team.

Transforming Student Voice into Action

After developing this vision, the Bluejay Leadership Team works to transform their voice and vision into action. We empowered student leaders who have a specific affinity for social media branding and video creation to help tell our story. Combining graphic design, journalism, and video production skills—and organized by social media interns—students use the Class Intercom app to promote and share our story through multiple mediums. The Class Intercom app lets administrators and teachers easily monitor and approve digital content composed by students.

Sharing the Stories of Students

Students are proud to be part of telling our SHS story. They have adopted the mantra “Show Up For Each Other” to show their dedication to and love of their fellow students. Students share the stories of the school using both the #showupforeachother and #sewardjays hashtags. They proudly wear press passes at games and activities as they represent each of the specific groups at our school. Senior social media intern Rebekah Klenke says, “This ensures everyone’s story is being told because we have authentic representation from every group contributing to our brand.”

Spreading P.R.I.D.E. throughout the School

Another function of the Bluejay Leadership Team provides is to support our P.R.I.D.E. program, a school-wide reinforcement and acknowledgment system that provides immediate, intermittent, and long-term reinforcements through weekly recognition systems.

Our team plans quarterly P.R.I.D.E. recognition rallies featuring alumni speakers, unique student performances, and special awards based on controllable, desirable assets or soft skills such as preparation, respect, integrity, dedication, and effort. Each rally also features a video that is planned, recorded, and edited by students that creatively highlights academic and extracurricular events and achievements for that particular term. Students offer feedback, contribute ideas, and strive for inclusivity with such presentations as flamenco guitar, cup stacking, and student versus faculty quiz bowl competitions with video clips highlighting a wide array of student activities from trap shooting to competitive diving.

Little did we know when we formed the Bluejay Leadership Team what a tremendous impact this organization would have throughout the entire school community. By empowering student leaders to serve our school and tell its many outstanding stories of success, we have built a stronger school culture based on the ideas of those who matter most: our students. Thanks to them, our administrative team is confident that not only do we encourage students to share their voices, but we also hear those voices and act on them.

If you were to ask your students if they have a voice in the decision-making process at your school, what would be their response?

Jill Johnson is the assistant principal at Seward High School in Seward, NE, serving an average of 525 ninth- through 12th-grade students each school year. Jill has 25 years in education, the last three at SHS. Jill is the 2018 Nebraska Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter @mrsjillj.

Jill Johnson

Over her 30 year career in education, Dr. Jill has served in various roles including secondary ELA teacher, professional development consultant, and high school administrator. After completing her doctoral study, Technology Leadership Qualities in Secondary Principals in Nebraska who Support Student-led Social Media Teams, Jill began her tenure as Class Intercom President.