Changing Structure and Culture by Centering on Students

If the structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must be changed.”

Paulo Freire

“Students are just as capable, just as responsible as any adult in reshaping our education system.”

Karla Rodriguez, former Student Leader

Above all else, this process is beneficial because it has not forced students into pre-existing structures that are often unfriendly to and unprepared for student participation, but has evolved the culture in tandem with structures, so that student voice carries the weight it can and should. When we asked students how prepared they felt to contribute meaningfully to meetings, one of the student leaders explained:

“Before we were often equipped just before the meetings… it is as if I was to go to court tomorrow, I would not be ready, but that’s what happened before.”

Student Governing Board member

Another student leader added: 

“We would be in class on a normal day and then our teacher would say: ‘oh, yeah, Miss Ramirez wants to see you,’ and [I thought], ‘oh, okay cool, did I do something wrong?’ [I] walk in and they say, ‘there’s a meeting tomorrow.’ [I would say] ‘Oh, interesting, so what are we doing at this meeting?’ and they say ‘taking charge of the school’s money and make sure not to mess up.’”

Student Governing Board member

This interrelatedness between structure and culture was also reflected in Overfelt’s participatory budgeting initiative. 

“As a principal, you can create a structure like small learning communities to better enable relationships between adults and students, and students with each other, therefore changing culture. Then, through that culture and the conversations, the need for instructional shifts comes up. For example, those instructional shifts necessitate that we shift to a block period, because we don’t have time to do the kind of instruction we want, so we make a structural shift that makes another cultural shift, and so on and so on.”

Vito Chiala, Principal, William C. Overfelt High School

Partly informed by the lessons learned from various initiatives, including the example set by Overfelt, The District and CFJ began a ‘center-out’ strategy, making space and piloting initiatives for student voice, power, and participation at the central office, and proactively expanding these models and lessons to other school sites. At the beginning, it was critical for CFJ to build a trusting relationship with The District. 

“[We were] literally having weekly meetings and conversations with The District. It was really important to be honest with them, to build trust and relationships, because we recognized that there was so much that needed to be changed to reflect what students were telling us that needed to change”. 

Angeles Rojas, former organizer, CFJ Capacity Building Manager

As Vander Zee highlights, this work would ultimately require district and school leaders “to retrofit the culture and structure [everywhere] from student-staff interactions to rules and procedures, to the beliefs that guided our organization.” Through a trusting partnership with CFJ, The District has continued to learn and improve its own processes. “We have to be honest with ourselves because it took a few years of relationship building and conversations to get to a place where The District would be willing to go through a reflective process that recognized a lot had to change,” said Rojas. Rojas’ reflections were echoed by Vander Zee:

“We started by saying, ‘We will do something that we have never done: develop an understanding of what that interaction [between adults and youth] can be, come up with processes for these interactions, and then expand to other school sites once we have modeled it as a district.’ 

Four years later, there’s a student sitting on the board, we have a Student Governing Board, a high school that was built with participation from families and students, multiple policy wins that have come as a result of student voice and participation and our partnership with CFJ, and we have learned and continue to learn countless lessons from students.”

Glenn Vander Zee, District Superintendent

While making space for and centering student voice, power, and participation at the district level, staff members throughout ESUHSD began to recognize that, to accommodate for and amplify student participation, they didn’t necessarily have to overhaul the whole system or create whole new structures, but rather they could change the ways in which beliefs and normalized practices, especially those related to power and legitimacy, operated within existing structures. 

“One of the key lessons for many of the adults at The District was that they actually had to trust students, give the power to students. It wasn’t about what we (CFJ) wanted as an organization, it was about helping create a space and modeling what these meaningful interactions with students could look like so that district staff actually believed that students could lead.” 

Angeles Rojas, former organizer, CFJ Capacity Building Manager

A key cultural shift that was required: to challenge conventional assumptions about whose voice carries legitimacy and about who holds knowledge within The District. This shift, thoroughly documented in research, is antithetical to existing cultural norms that have guided schools in the past, which hold that it is only the adults in power who “know” and whose voices carry legitimacy, both inside and outside of classrooms.

Strategizing Cultural Shifts; Rethinking Youth

It is through the interdependence between structure and culture that certain ideas about youth voice are produced and reproduced. Dominant paradigms about development often treat children and youth as semi-empty vessels or unfinished “subjects to change” rather than “agents of change” themselves—a mentality justifying the need for adults to constantly step in and act for students rather than with them. Moreover, research around youth voice and power has demonstrated how hollow student voice efforts that do not address adults’ deeply-held beliefs about students, especially beliefs about Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other marginalized students, consistently fail, often reproducing the same exclusionary policies and practices adults set out to address in the first place (Cook-Sather, 2006).

This culture and set of beliefs about youth were just as dominant. Therefore, meaningful participation by students required a new paradigm in which teachers and district staff could ally with students as agents of change to build a community and culture which respects and empowers student voice and participation at every level of decision-making, from the classroom to the district office. 

“Not only do students have to have a seat at the table, they actually have to be heard. And when they’re heard, then there has to be some action to support that.” 

Lupe, Student Leader

“Making space for student voice in your program is not just about inviting young people to participate. It’s about creating the tools, support, and systemic approach that is welcoming to young people, acknowledges their input through action, and is consistently working towards ending adult bias in the room.” 

Lucila Ortiz, CFJ Organizing Director

“You’re not going to agree on everything, but if all you’re asking is for input, and that input just goes on a sheet of paper and doesn’t translate to action, then it’s not true, honest dialogue. Students out there have a seat at the table, but there has to be action that supports the dialogue that took place.” 

Chris Funk, former District Superintendent

Both students and adults who participated in and led this work understood that beliefs about young people and their knowledge varied greatly, and that producing a cultural shift would require time and continuous effort. In a context where adults still held, and continue to hold, many of these dominant beliefs, CFJ, student leaders, and district leaders recognized that to build a space with open communication and reciprocal learning, students needed the tools to participate with authority. Consequently, one of the approaches to change toxic cultural beliefs about student voice, power, and participation was to establish dedicated structures throughout The District that supported both student access to information and student action.

Tools for Meaningful Student Participation

Scholars have consistently shown that the primary culprits in perpetuating achievement gaps are contemporary and historical structural disparities in access to resources, capital, and importantly, opportunities—such as real decision-making power (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1994; Bowles et al., 1976; Kozol, 1991; Oakes, 2005; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 2006). For that reason, action for equity must confront the complex web of structural and cultural factors that schools and their communities embody (Wilson, 2010). Efforts to address systemic inequities within or outside of schools cannot only address culture as a “collective agreement”; they must also think about structure in explicit terms, accounting for the fact that many students, especially Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other marginalized students have been systematically disenfranchised and distanced from control over their own learning and school experience for their whole lives.

Without intentionality, students and teachers do not work as equal partners “in the shared undertaking of making meaning of their work together” (Cook-Sather, 2006; Fielding, 2004). 

“Our democracy is based on representation of the people by the people, right? But as a school board member, I’m not elected by the people I represent: the students. I’m elected by their parents. So, one of the things I asked our superintendent early-on was, “Can we have a student board member?” Our board, at the time, said ‘We tried that before. It didn’t really work.’”

Pattie Cortese, ESUHSD Board of Trustees President

Beyond adding one student board member, both students and adults recognized that authentic student participation beyond the district level required explicit efforts to build dialogue between students and administrators in their own schools. ESUHSD found some success by creating independent committees for youth to build and exercise voice and leadership within their individual schools. The Student Assembly—a group of students from various schools designed to build student power and participation—is one example of this dialogue-building process.

“I didn’t want one elected student to somehow try to represent 23,000 students. I want two-way channels of communication between that student and every student at the school site. So, we came up with something we call The Student Assembly, comprised of one student from each grade level at every school site. And then, out of that body of four, one representative attends a monthly meeting at the district office.” 

Pattie Cortese, ESUHSD Board of Trustees President

The Student Assembly quickly demonstrated how students, as agents of change, represent a key partner and crucial stakeholder in The District’s efforts towards creating more robust, responsive, and equitable school communities. Once given a space to voice and organize, student leaders quickly defied dominant and prevalent beliefs about youth.

“An obstacle that turned out to be non-existent was the worry that many adults shared: student voice meant discord, a pitting of students versus staff. Would students demand four-day weekends and soda in the water fountains?”

Glenn Vander Zee, District Superintendent

Moreover, Chiala, one of the first principals to spearhead these efforts shared that as soon as they began to give power to students, “ not only did they begin to live up to their potential, but they were able to better align school resources and efforts to what was most important to them and their education.”

The importance of equipping students with tools for meaningful participation was evidenced further when student leaders gained access to discipline and survey data: a critical tool that helped legitimize their experiences and perspectives. As one student, Alexis, recalls, when students were able to review ESUHSD’s disciplinary statistics, they revealed that Black and Latinx youth were suspended at far higher rates than their peers, confirming the prevalence of structural racism within their school:

“We knew this stuff, but now that we’re seeing the statistics, it was a wake-up call: now we’re speaking
up about it.” 

Alexis, Student Leader

To affect the changes they envision, students also needed to learn how to wield the power available to them now that they are participants in decision-making. Providing students with both the tools and the training of how to wield real power was identified in interviews as a critical component for uplifting student voice, power, and participation. According to Vander Zee, part of wielding that power is understanding its limitations:

“The key is being upfront about what the real role is, because telling students they have power when it’s not real is disingenuous and deadly. Dropping them initially into a situation, where you say, ‘Here’s the mechanism of power, and we’re dropping you into it,’ as a first thing? No thank you. We created environments where they have the power in the room. We want to teach them: you have all this power and this is how it will express itself within the system. We are really clear with that up front.”

Glenn Vander Zee, District Superintendent

While sustaining this new level of student engagement and participation is something that requires constant attention, providing students with both the tools and training to wield real power in district and school decision-making structures helped students meaningfully engage with adults in arenas of change. To this end, ESUHSD exemplifies how student voice, power, and participation can be so much more than a “feel-good” symbolic leadership program; it teaches us that a culture of collaboration and partnership, paired with a dedicated set of structures that empower students is not only beneficial for a school district in terms of its ability to serve students and achieve its goals, but also can be transformational for the students involved.