In keeping with its title, DemocracyReady NY seeks to foster a representative learning environment across schools in New York State. After organizing an event for DemcoracyReady NY Civic Learning Week, I made it clear to my fellow participants that student input was the key to advancing education. Speaking with educators and policymakers about the problems we observed in the educational system helped us gain clarity, or on the other side, provided us with a strategy to attempt to fix it. It only took us, the students, to speak up. Entering into the DemocracyReady NY Youth Ambassador program, the need for student voice was at the forefront of my thoughts.
What does student voice look like in most schools? The most common way for students to express their opinions in schools is through student councils. The New York State Senate Bill S1732, which requires the incorporation of student governments where they do not currently exist, has the potential to become law. With the other members of the DemocracyReady NY Ambassador program, we debated the validity of student governments. Are student governments the key to ensuring students’ voices are heard, or are they simply a popularity contest?
In order to effectively argue for the best type of student representation that schools could consider providing, we wanted to answer this question. To do that, the Ambassadors created a survey filled with questions regarding students’ opinions on student councils. Each of us in the group had a handful of students at our school complete the survey.
Here’s a few of the questions…
[To the right] A screenshot from Allegany-Limestone High School Student Council Instagram page.
Another interesting question that we asked was “What issues should students not be involved in”?
Some respondents said that students should not be involved in budgets, class period times, and curriculum.
Regarding the other outcomes, students from the represented schools in New York State provided a variety of responses. A frequent response when we asked students what their student council was used for was “school spirit”, “to plan dances” or “to raise money.”
The poll unmistakably showed that student councils are the motivation for activities like dances, events, and campaigns that help spread school spirit. Student councils definitely allow students to step up and represent their schools and the student body, whether it’s through event planning or rallying of the class. However, our initial question still remained unanswered; were student voices being heard in terms of policy making? With the survey, we were unable to clearly identify how student councils enabled students to participate in the debate over crucial matters affecting the school system. Student councils have no role in uniform, safety, budget, or curriculum. Is that the way it should be, though? Would students even want to be involved in those decisions? Perhaps some might want to just have such crucial decisions made for them.
In my opinion, everyone should strive to ensure that there is student representation everywhere in schools. The national average student to teacher ratio in public schools is roughly 15:1 (NCES). So why shouldn’t students, who are in the majority, have more of a say? However, as the study showed, the concept turned out to be more extensive and intricate than initially thought. Local control of flexibility and standardization is essential for determining the ideal level of student involvement, where students are given a voice but are not required to participate in more important decisions. A beginning is the Senate Bill S1732. Student councils are an attribute to any school and take student representation in schools one step further. The next experiment that needs to be conducted is to determine whether students genuinely desire to participate in decisions that administrators often make. From there, the ideal level of student representation in schools can be sought after.