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High School Students in Lake Zurich, Ill., Get to Weigh on Their Administrators’ Thinking, Even When They’re Off at AASA’s Conference

In this session, superintendents heard about the importance of student leadership in a school atmosphere and how it can help students voice their opinions. Photo by Bennett Songer.

Some 2,000 miles from the San Diego Convention Center, high schoolers Dennis, Eva, Emma, Lucas and Matthew gathered in a conference room in Lake Zurich, Ill., with an important message for school district leaders: Student voice matters.

The five student leaders joining the conference via Zoom as the centerpiece of a Friday morning session “Nurturing a Culture of Student Agency Through Student Leadership.”

The hour-long program was led by Kelley Gallt, superintendent of Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95, and Angela Stallion, the district’s assistant superintendent. Gallt and Stallion were on hand to talk about the implementation and impact of a Superintendent Student Advisory Team that gives students a seat at the table in informing and shaping school district policy.

But enough about the adults. What do the students think?

“Usually, there is a pretty big disconnect between administration and students,” said Eva, a high school senior. “But I feel like this student advisory team has allowed us to break that disconnect and see eye-to-eye.”

Added Dennis, a junior: “It’s really crucial, because we have enough perspective to provide the best outcome for our students. We do create change.”

The model of shared leadership that has taken root in Lake Zurich — a picturesque suburban community northwest of Chicago — was initially led by Gallt as a way to understand what was and wasn’t working for students. But students quickly took more agency in the process.

“At the end of that first year, a student said to me ‘I think you can use a student partner — I think I can help you lead this group,” Gallt said, smiling, “She didn’t say ‘better,’ but I’m pretty sure that’s what she meant.”

By the third year, one student representative turned into a small committee to allow for greater representation.

What quickly became clear was that students were struggling with learning math so they were brought into the curriculum realignment and resource purchasing process.

Students also have had a seat at the table in issues such as the architectural design of school learning hubs, the development of school safety protocols and the purchase of educational technology. They even worked to lobby the state board to create a unit of study on environmental sustainability.

“It’s really opened my eyes to the building blocks of the school and how, overall, administration works to help increase opportunities for students,” said Lucas, a senior. “It helps me feel more connected with my school and the administration.”

In elevating student voices, Gallt said she has also made sure to create advisory teams to include staff, parents and community as well. And that’s not to say every student recommendation is enacted. At one point, Gallt turned to the students on screen and asked, “Do you always get your way?” The answer was laughter and an emphatic “No!”

But the seat at the table — and the fact that students are truly listened to — has made a difference.

“What has happened over time is that we hear from these students — they contact us, they e-mail us, they ask us questions, for letters of recommendation and we know them,” Stallion said. “And I am so grateful for that because I don’t think I would have had that experience had we not started this journey.”

(Michael Klitzing is a freelance writer in San Diego and a reporter on Conference Daily Online).

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