Design for Student Leadership: Participatory schooling is extremely educative (and empowering)

True, I was always a student who wanted my voice heard, and student government in both high school and college gave me ample chance to be in front of my communities, but an extremely overlooked benefit of student leadership is experience with designing and planning.

The process of identifying needs, determining the required resources, planning, and executing is a powerful tool in the developing toolbox of young student leaders. Anyone who was ever on student government probably had growth experiences similar to my own–experiences with thinking up, designing, and executing public actions and events. For student government officers, this certainly includes dances and spring fairs, but also extends to planning speaker series, organizing conflict resolution and community meetings, travel planning, and strategic collaboration with a variety of partners and organizations.

As a believer in apprenticeship and experiential learning, I think one of the best design features schools can choose to incorporate is a mechanism that ensures students will be able to think of, create, and execute, their ideas. More importantly, a mechanism that ensures that these ideas, when serious and well-vetted, will be approved. Students will not be willing to take the risk of investing a lot of work into a great idea unless they are confident that their idea will at least have a fair shot. When there happens to be a strong leader in a school or when systems are in place to empower students and give their ideas a shot, they can create brilliant things. (For an example, see my friend and now departed student Mikals Program Proposal for an Arise school mentoring program. He wrote this as an Alumnus, not as a student, because he cared and wanted to be involved. I discuss some of the things he learned later on.)

There are a number of ways schools can design for this kind of empowerment. Funded entrepreneurial competitions (@NFTE is a great resource) are an example as are the student government examples above, but my favorite way to systematically engage students in changing and creating their own school is through Youth Practitioner Action Research (YPAR) or Community Organizing.


Practitioner Action Research (PAR) is a systematic, research process for change-oriented “insider learning”–learning conducted by members of a group or organization about that same group/organization/process with the intent to promote action.

I want to give a shout out to a new favorite blogger of mine, Dr. Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D (@jackiegerstein), at User Generated Education. See her post on YPAR, which includes a great example and also this dissertation, by Maggie Gaddis Wanis, which has great example from public health. Also, see my favorite book on the subject, Revolutionizing Education: Youth Practitioner Action Research in Motionby Cammarota and Fine (that’s Michelle Fine, well-known author of Framing Dropouts and a multitude of other excellent work). Finally, you can see the folks at The Center for the Study of Boys and Girls Lives (CSBGL) discus their YPAR work and it’s impact on a variety of exceptional private schools here. Fully disclosure, my father, Dr. Peter Kuriloff, is featured early in this clip as he is one of CSBGL’s founders. 

Community Organizing

When it comes to community organizing (see my previous post on this subject), I try to stick with the book (Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals), but if I wanted my students in a Philadelphia school to become change agents I would do two things: 1) Teach about organizing and power as part of our curriculum (starting with Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Alinsky’s work); 2) Get a partner like Youth United for Change in Philadelphia (@YUCphilly), and get them involved in the organizing process. This article by Daniel Hosang, sponsored by the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth and Organizing (FCYO), is a good overview of the national youth organizing movements and FCYO’s site is great (here’s another piece about the organizing process I like).

Finally, see below for Mikal’s proposal. Notice some of the skills to be developed in this process–language and tone, audience awareness, systematic thinking, contingency planning, and resource management, just to name a few that spring to mind. In response to this proposal I asked him a number of questions and sent him off to revise 🙂   

From: Mikal Smith

Date: 10/1/2012

Re: Program Proposal Program

Name: P.A.S.S.

Purpose: The purpose is to help students become more equip to meet the educational, emotional, and socio-economic needs that arise in their lives.

Identify Students: The students will be identified by the counseling team, the teachers, the dean of students and administration. I will work closely with the heads of the academies.

Program Description: As a mentor at Arise Academy Charter High School I will be helping students work through various issues. I will be available to work with students: One–on-one individual mentoring – after school and during school, any available space Weekly after-school – any available space College preparedness support – ideal college experse and learning how to be independent but find support in the college life college tours Goal-setting workshops Leadership training Interviewing and self-presentation skills Support in finding employment Career exploration and workplace tours Saturday Academy: For six hours every month, the young people are exposed to workshops taught by experts on such subjects as: communication skills, drug abuse awareness, academic and cultural issues, computer training, job preparedness, and male/female relationships.

Other Responsibilities: Tracking and monitoring: students in grades nine through twelve are systematically tracked and monitored by the program for academic, social, cultural progress. Tracking and monitoring student progress will take place with tracking student’s attendance and academic and behavior’s

Resources: -room -budget for refreshments -occasional laptop access -office supplies

Selection Criteria: Referral Process: The students will be referred by administration, teachers, and counselors. The students will be carefully selected based on their needs, academic success, and social behaviors.


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