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Involve Students in Community Engagement Activities

STRATEGY: Involve students throughout the modernization planning and implementation process and create ongoing opportunities for students to present their work to the public in and out of school.

Modernization is a top priority across school districts in the United States. The technology, curriculum, teaching, and learning environments in many schools are inadequate for comprehensive preparation of students for twenty-first-century career and college readiness. Currently, districts implement multifaceted initiatives that facilitate collaboration among educators, school leaders, parents, community members, local government, and business leaders to develop and execute school modernization. These stakeholders serve to define the root cause of modernization issues, identify new sources of funding, and develop transparent implementation systems.

Meaningful student engagement is necessary to optimize modernization results. Research shows that when educators partner with students to improve learning and leadership in schools, school change is positive and effective. Indeed, as the School Modernization Initiative stated, “It is not enough to simply drop technology into schools and expect change. There is a tremendous amount of infrastructure that must be put in place before technology can be effectively integrated into the daily curriculum. Leadership must be cultivated, teachers need training, and support networks must be formulated.” There has been a growing trend toward student participation in school decisionmaking, and a 2002 Zachariah Webb report estimated that more than 25 percent of district boards nationwide engage students in some way. Likewise, more than thirty state boards have student participation.


School modernization involves making twenty-first-century tools and teaching practices an integral part of every school day. Meaningful student involvement encourages every student to share accountability with adults. It occurs when students are engaged in every aspect of the educational process, and centers on students partnering with educators to make decisions about the curriculum, calendar-year planning, and building design. This kind of involvement recognizes the unique knowledge, experience, and perspective of each individual. Students can also join boards of education at the local, district, and state levels, and some education agencies engage students as staff who help to oversee grant making, school assessment, and modernization. Research show that students’ attitudes are most positively affected when they make significant contributions to their schools.

There are many examples nationwide of meaningful student involvement.

* In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, students are members of the local school improvement team, with as many as five students on each ten-member team. For more than twenty-five years, a high school senior has been a voting member on the district board of education. These members vote on all issues, including the school budget. All advisory, curriculum, and study committees, as well as special task forces, include students, who work on everything from grading policies to alternative learning.

* As part of an initiative to encourage student involvement, Federal Hocking High School, in Stewart, Ohio, has embraced students in nearly every aspect of school management and governance, including modernization.

First Steps to Consider

  • Create a sustainable structure of school and district support to build the capacity of educators and administrators to involve students in meaningful decisionmaking opportunities. Meaningful engagement requires the consistent support and willingness of adults to integrate students into all aspects of schooling.
  • Modernization does not happen in isolation; rather, it is the implementation of a set of interrelated strategies and activities that are then infused with other efforts directed toward increased school success for all students.
  • Engage students in education collectively, to promote lifelong learning through academic, cultural, and civic engagement. Emphasize student involvement in order to promote greater academic achievement, close the current engagement gaps in gender, class, and race, and create supportive learning environments for all students.

Complexities & Pitfalls

Students who are actively engaged in school modernization can combine their efforts with academic course work where appropriate. In the presentations of learning (POL) model, students present their findings and recommendations, based on concrete evidence from their own work in the school or community, to a panel of peers or adults who offer feedback and support for next steps, including implementation. Time permitting, these presentations may also serve as a capstone at the end of a semester or academic year, or can serve as a senior thesis project. However, modernization POLs are not always compatible with the timeline of school and district modernization efforts. Students can upload their presentations to a PowerPoint shared drive on the district website or present the project in person at community centers, parent engagement events, or school board meetings.

POLs touch on three core academic values:

  • Student ownership, responsibility, and engagement: Students take ownership of their learning in relation to academic and character goals.
  • Community pride and involvement: Stakeholders engage with student work and provide authentic feedback.
  • Equity: All students are seen and provide insight into what learning experiences they find most meaningful and relevant to their lives.

As one POL student participant stated, “POLs are important because we use our work to show how we have grown and why we should move on to the next grade.”

Guiding Questions

  • What is the appropriate level of engagement for students in your school in terms of modernization initiatives?
  • What is the target number of students the school should involve during modernization efforts?
  • To what extent should student engagement on school modernization overlap with or be distinct from current academic programs?
  • What is the school’s capacity to instruct students on speech making and presentations? How does this need to be improved or modified to fully engage students in meaningful modernization efforts and public engagement?