From Youth “Inclusion” to Authentic Power and Collaboration

As these initiatives have expanded, and more people begin to recognize the value of youth voice, power, and participation, perceptions of youth have progressively moved away from ‘solely adults in the making’ (Graham & Bruce, 2006). 

“While the original goal of bringing student voice here was to just get a collective central sense of where students are, establish their voice, and bring that to the LCAP Advisory Board and our board, the original goal has changed significantly.”

Glenn Vander Zee, District Superintendent

Instead, more stakeholders have begun to engage with youth as knowledgeable, competent, able to construct their own perspectives of daily lived experiences (James et al., 1998), and key partners in improving educational experiences, opportunities, and outcomes. 

When we asked Vander Zee how far along they were as a district, he described a continuum in which on one side, “there are adults making decisions disregarding or not including student voice, which doesn’t necessarily mean that those adults haven’t been totally zeroing in on student data and outcomes or that they are not making decisions with the best interests of students in mind,” and on the other side, a district in which adults and students are making decisions together, each with a valued perspective. He believes The District is still somewhere in the middle.

For CFJ, which has decades of experience working to build student power, this movement from “students as bystanders” to “student governance” is both clear and strategic. Alongside youth and partners, they have worked hard to develop tools that help schools and districts understand their progress towards more authentic youth partnerships, among them their “student voice continuum” composed of five key domains of progression towards student governance: Impact, Goal, Message, Racial Equity, and Activities. For each of these domains, they have developed specific examples of how each domain can move from “bystanders” towards “student governance.” Some of these include:

reproducing inequitiesshared ownership
‘we will keep you informed’‘we cannot lock transformative solutions without you’
no targeted outreachBIYOC (Black and Indigenous Youth of Color) and underrepresented, intersectional youth have significant or full leadership and decision-making power

When describing a similar continuum, Albert Tobias shares a vision of building and developing “civic actors and students who are instrumental in the design of their education.” 

“It’s something we want to fight for. Students are more than learners; they’re more than receptacles for information. They are democratic actors in the world, and they will shape the world they live in.”

Albert Tobias, CFJ Statewide Campaign Manager

As Rosa de Leon explained, The District has come a long way from “[this work] was the right thing to do,” to the work being “transformative for students and adults”. In addition, as we asked students, parents, school staff, District staff, and leaders across The District what they believed was the biggest impact or win, one resounding theme continued to surface: 

“It is not so much of, ‘look at this particular story or these particular wins’; we certainly have had big wins for students and families. The biggest impact has been creating spaces where students are influencing decisions to come, spaces where students are beginning to influence the fabric of and practices in schools, and spaces that are changing both the adults and the students.”

Teresa Marquez, ESUHSD Associate Superintendent of Educational Services