Student Voices Inform Our District’s Progress

BY ANDREW G. HOULIHAN/School Administrator, June 2020

Union County, N.C., Superintendent Andrew Houlihan with members of his Student Advisory Council at a meeting in February.
I began to understand the power of student voice when I taught 2nd grade almost 20 years ago. Every afternoon, my students led a reflective activity that identified the many positive aspects of their day as well as ways to improve the following day. This practice empowered them to develop strategies that improved the overall culture of our classroom.

Ever since, I have carried similar approaches to amplifying students’ voices throughout my career as a principal, central-office administrator and now superintendent of a 41,500-student school district.

After being named superintendent in 2016, I encouraged the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, consisting of 55 students in grades 10-12, to share feedback about school district operations. This enabled me to understand the pulse of our schools.

Invaluable Input

The students’ feedback was invaluable and led to the adoption of budget recommendations that included free, in-school College Board examinations as well as additional school counselors. This helped us connect more students to higher education opportunities and ensured additional counseling support to help students navigate academic and peer pressures and prepare for the competitive job market.

In 2018, we decided to forego the typical keynote address during our Summer Leadership Institute, a professional development conference for school leaders. Instead, we featured a panel of high school students who discussed the most effective ways they learned in their courses.

That summer institute also marked the official launch of EmpowerED, an instructional framework developed by our school system to encourage students to connect, collaborate and create in the classroom. The ideas the student panelists shared pushed our leaders to understand how student feed-back could influence instructional strategies.

Several months later, the EmpowerED framework began to take hold in our schools.

Inspired by the television show “Shark Tank,” 3rd graders at one of our elementary schools spent weeks researching real-world challenges. Working in small groups, they pitched their solutions to a panel of “sharks” consisting of business professionals and district staff, who decided which project would win the grand prize.

I was amazed to see young students working collaboratively, conducting research and presenting viable solutions to complex challenges, such as litter in New York City and bats in Austin, Texas. Most importantly, the 3rd-grade teachers took a step back and let students lead their own learning. The school’s principal also said the Shark Tank project encouraged other teachers to tweak lessons in a way that would incorporate more student voice in their classrooms.

Impactful Pitches

As superintendent, I share these kinds of lessons with educators throughout our district. That is why our 2019 Summer Leadership Institute began with a similar experience for school leaders: EmpowerED Shark Tank. Participants were charged with developing a design for their school that would allow for greater learning. After presenting their pitches to a panel of EmpowerED staff experts, the finalists presented their pitches to a new group of sharks.

Can you guess who served on the surprise panel of sharks? You bet — our students!

This experience encouraged our leaders to push their own thinking when addressing their school’s problem of practice in relation to the implementation of our EmpowerED framework. It also encouraged teachers to think beyond their traditional practices. As a result, our schools have collectively shifted their focus toward creating an environment that incorporated student voice at a much higher level.

At the district level, the student advisory council’s feedback continues to help guide our decisions. We regularly seek ways to amplify their voices during professional development conferences. Giving voice to students, we expect, will lead to greater performance gains in our schools.

ANDREW HOULIHAN is superintendent of Union County Public Schools in Monroe, N.C. Twitter: @AGHoulihan