Education Chat

Encouraging Student Voice

Nelson Beaudoin, principal of Kennebunk High School in Maine and author of the forthcoming Elevating Student Voice, took your questions on giving students a greater say in their schools.

Encouraging Student Voice

Guest: Nelson Beaudoin, principal, Kennebunk High School

Sept. 28, 2005

Rich Shea, Teacher Magazine (Moderator):
Welcome to Teacher’s live chat. I’m Rich Shea, executive editor of the magazine, and our guest is Nelson Beaudoin, principal of Kennebunk High School in Maine, where he’s doing something unique—allowing students to help run the school. As described in “Vocal Arrangement,” a feature in the August/September issue, Mr. Beaudoin allows students to supervise parent-teacher conferences; help hire new staff; participate, without being elected, in student government; and engage in independent studies—all through what he calls “the magic of student voice.” The result at the mostly white, middle-class high school has been an increase in AP test-taking, matriculation to four-year colleges, and enthusiasm for learning. Mr. Beaudoin, named Maine’s principal of the year in 2000, is also the author of two books, Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone and the forthcoming Elevating Student Voice. We’re pleased to have him with us today, and we have many questions to get to, so let’s begin.

Question from Jim Shields, Teacher, South Burlington High School:
I was an administrator at a high school a few years ago. This high school prided itself on giving students complete freedom of movement and eliminated study halls for unscheduled students. Now, they lament the trend that students feel entitled to basically do whatever they want whenever they want, and the teachers feel at the mercy of disruptive students. How do you give the students true personal responsibility without the “carrot and stick” approach of creating consequences for violators, which doesn’t seem like true student choice/voice and responsibility?

Nelson Beaudoin:
I think the answer lies in the correlation between rights and responsibilities. Our school is nowhere near total freedom and we, too, have disruptive students. But, the kids who are engaged who appreciate our climate really work at keeping it. I think this is an evolutionary thing rather than a revolutionary thing.

Question from Terry Aulich Executive Officer ACSSO:
What exactly are the problems some teachers have with this democratic system?

Nelson Beaudoin:
This idea of teachers having problems was overstated in the article. We have a pretty fast-paced school with a lot of change occuring on top of all the mandates and challenges facing every school. The work load is immense and occasionally the student voice initiative gets some of the blame. Our faculty has to be heavily connected to this vision of student participation or it would simply not work. The classroom is still the heart and soul of our high school.

Question from
Most elementary school students have no voice. The adults have all the power. Can you comment specifically on strategies for increasing meaningful student involvement at the elementary and middle school levels?

Nelson Beaudoin:
My experience has been mostly high school although I was principal of a 4-8 school ten years ago. I would say that programs that have student voice work at any level. Responsive classrooms, advisory programs, student government, student publications, service learning, etc. You are right about who has the power but it is more about valuing student voice and abiliities than it is about who is in charge.

Question from Joe Gerzina, Educational Consultant, Riverview Intermediate Unit Six, Clarion, PA:
What happens when an empowered group of students are adamant about making a change that you do not agree with?

Nelson Beaudoin:
I think that students are able to see the big picture and recognize that an occasional “no” is okay. Saying no with love is a real key. But, the biggest key of all is their trusting you. That is built up over time. I have some great stories as examples, but time doesn’t permit.

Question from Colleen M. Wilson, School of Ed Professor, Jacksonville University:
In the beginning, how did you establish the rapport to inspire children to really brainstorm and share ideas with a school administrator?

Nelson Beaudoin:
We worked through advisory to have issues schoolwide discussed and there were a couple of events that model our responsiveness to their ideas. But, it is really about being open to students and putting them first.

Question from Deb Oberhouse, Teacher, Lakota High School:
When students are placed in positions of responsibility, are they chosen for their leadership skills and ability to communicate? Do you have programs and workshops to help students develop leadership and communication skills?

Nelson Beaudoin:
We have training for a number of our leadership groups such as Peer helpers and Peer mediators. We also have a Captain’s Club, but we are in a great position of selecting and appointing students because it’s good for them and some need a sense of belonging. We are past the “let’s just pick the top students” phase which is a pretty natural place.

Question from John Guffey, Service-Learning Instructor, Eagle Rock School & Professional Dev. Center:
We have formed a student led Service-Learning Advisory Council to encourage student voice and leadership at our high school. This group is working to increase student ownership and involvement in service projects and civic engagement across the curriculum. They have surveyed the community and are pursuing project ideas generated by students and staff. What are some concrete steps students can take to develop credibility and demonstrate competence in the area of school leadership, particularly as it relates to curriculum and instruction?

Nelson Beaudoin:
I actually did the same thing at a high school 5 years ago. My experience was that students were taken seriously. Of course, adults working with them have to safeguard the program to a degree. One component of service learning is the student as a planner and this is a rich example of how students can impact teaching.

Nelson Beaudoin:
Related to last question, we also have students on hiring committees, the school board, and we ask our teachers to students provide feedback on their teaching at the end of each semester. I can’t think of more purposeful ways to involve students.

Question from Juliet Williams, Associated Press writer, Sacramento, Calif.:
Is this a nationwide movement? Are you aware of other schools adopting these approaches?

Nelson Beaudoin:
There are many related movements such as the 1st Amendment School project which we are a part of or Educating for Citizenship. Even some of the Character Education programs lean toward student voice, decision making, and democratic procedures.

Question from John Clarke, Parent of 9th grader, Pine View School, Sarasota County, Florida:
Our public school in a wealthy community like yours is grades 2-12, all gifted, and has a chat website ( of 450 students totally outside the principal’s control. Is such independence something you’d support in other high schools? Or are there reservations you might have?

Nelson Beaudoin:
Like any reform movement, this will not work well in a chaotic school. You have to first establish credibility and a climate of trust. Adults must build in safety measures to protect students from negative outcomes. A 7th grader once described this for me by saying “Adults were like bumpers at a bowling alley making sure we didn’t go into the gutter.” In summary, trust, safety, and respect are the foundation of all this good stuff.

Question from Betsy E. Borgacz, Executive Director, One Parent To Another:
Can we use your model as a method to give students with disabilities a voice? In my line of work, many children are taught they are bad and are frequently punished for behaviors that exist because of a disability. I am wondering how we can use “student voice” to bring these kids out of the corner classrooms and into the school, showing teachers how to do it better.

Nelson Beaudoin:
Hopefully, your students with disabilities are front and center in the PET (Pupil Evaluation team) process. If adults in charge of these students treat them equally and model that for other staff and students, it would be a great start. The constant struggle between inspiration and control plays a big role here. Adults need to take the risk and give these students a voice. Like any other student, involvement in activities go a long way in creating normalcy.

Question from Sheila Seitz, Doctoral Candidate, University of Cincinnati:
For my dissertation, I created a scale to measure student voice within a school. My intent is to compare this measure with achievement scores of a school. Do you believe this insight would be helpful to leaders in education?

Nelson Beaudoin:
At my current school, we have seen startling growth in data showing increases in student voice. Coincidentally, we also show nearly the same increase in student achievement whether it is test scores or honor roll, etc. My belief is that getting kids to care is at the heart of motivation and learning. Student voice is an excellent vehicle to create that caring.

Clearly, I sometimes feel that what we do is in the minority and we must work hard to make believers out of doubters. I feel so strongly about this that I have authored a book on the subject of student voice in order to enhance participation, citizenship, and leadership.

Question from Rona Roberts, Kentucky, student voice researcher:
How have you been able to engage students who make C grades and lower?

Nelson Beaudoin:
We have actually picked them out and asked them to serve on committees and organizations. I have frequently organized committees based on student performance trying to create balanced representations.

Question from L School Board Member:
“Student voice” is a great idea. How did you get the school board to buy into it?

Nelson Beaudoin:
Basically, the school board couldn’t argue with success. When I started this job, there was a strong perception that change needed to occur. They probably would have welcomed almost anything. I read somewhere today that good leadership is easier to accomplish in a place of need.

Question from Sharon White-Scalies, WCU Preservice Teacher:
What are the pitfalls of student voice, specifically, parental input?

Nelson Beaudoin:
I am not sure if I understand this question. But, I can tell you that if students go home telling good stories, the issues with parents dramatically decrease. In our school, student voice is such a big deal that parents endorse it and value it.

Question from Rhondak Brown , Special Education Facilitator, Union Grove MS:
Students at many schools have no voice at all as it relates to learning, discipline, or activities. I feel that many teachers or administrators are threatened by student voice. What is the best way to initiate the concept of student voice?

Nelson Beaudoin:
I can’t say that this is the only formula but in our case we got the students to care and the adults eventually joined in. Incentives for change in education really have to do with outcomes for kids. It is hard for adults, no matter how fearful, to ignore motivated, engaged students. Tough decisions and risk-taking have to be part of the educational landscape or we will continue to have the same outcomes.

Here we started by telling kids that school was about them and their participation was non-negotiable. We even used the MacDonald’s slogan “We do it all for you” telling the kids that that didn’t apply here. Instead, the Burger King slogan” Have it your way” was more appropriate. At the heart of our mission, we tried and try to make this a “School for Each Kid.”

Question from Christian Long, School Designer, Huckabee & Associates:
Born and raised in Maine, I was pleased to hear of the transformation of Kennebunk High when I read the article. As an ex high school teacher of 10 years, I was impressed by the deep convictions that understand the ability of young people to play strategic roles in a school’s operation. My curiosity now lies in how students are “brought up to speed” in terms of school politics, decision-making, and the nuances of leadership. And how are their teachers “set up to succeed” in this same dynamic?

Nelson Beaudoin:
This is definitely a work in progress. As we develop more and more student voice and strive to empower teachers, parents, and students, we are constantly reflecting on our practices. Our kids have complained about the fact that we are still somewhat exclusive, do not always communicate well, and do not have a clear governance protocol. Parents and teachers would probably report the same thing. The good thing is we have all sorts of people excited about helping us find the answer. This past summer, recognizing the need to empower teachers more, we conducted a workshop called “200 people for 200 minutes.” 180 people attended- 80 students, 60 parents, and 40 teachers. This began the process of setting all groups up for success.

Question from Michael Corso; Global Institute for Student Aspirations:
Could you comment on the level of respect--teachers for students, students for teachers, students for students--that a climate of increased voice has had on your school?

Nelson Beaudoin:
Survey data shows dramatic increases in respect in all areas. As an example, students’ positive comments about the behavior of their peers has increased from 49% to 74% in a 4 year period of time. This school has always been a school where the teachers think the students are wonderful and vice-versa.

Question from Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District.:
How much weight is given to student input in light of the demands made by the federal No Child Left Behind Act and Maine’s own standards? What is the process used?

Nelson Beaudoin:
I really pay very little attention to the federal mandates. Rather, by really working on school climate, teacher effectiveness and student achievement, the standards take care of themselves. Maybe I am lucky or charmed in some way, but I tend to believe that what we are doing works pretty well. Our kids understand the requirements of these mandates and the importance of meeting standards. But, that comes from a source other than the standards themselves.

Question from Olga Kokino, Title I Coordinator, University High, Los Angeles:
We have many schools that bus students from low-income families. We also have ethnic diversity and many immigrant students. Do you have any examples of success from demographic groups such as these?

Nelson Beaudoin:
We have little diversity here, but I believe that students respond to respect and being valued regardless of their situation. I do spend time in urban schools and consider the challenges there immense.

Earlier, I mentioned the need to create a safe environment and that cannot be ignored. Hope and discovery are strong motivators and schools should be more about building on success than dwelling on weaknesses. Too much of educational reform is mired in deficit thinking.

Question from Ronna Rutishauser, Associate Principal (Curriculum) Johansen High School, Modesto, CA:
We are a First Amendment Affiliate School and are looking for more involvement from students. How are your students selected to serve on staff-hiring interview panels? Do their votes count the same as each adult? How is confidentiality protected?

Nelson Beaudoin:
Right now there is no formal method for selecting students. We usually talk with the Department Chairperson and Administration and select several interested students. They have exactly the same vote as any other member of the committee and the committee typically is made up of 3 teachers, an administrator and 2 students. In fact, students have actually swayed committee sentiment toward one candidate over another because of their rich insight. Like teachers and parents on committees, students are instructed on the rules of confidentiality and are trusted to comply. Parents have even reported that they could get no information from their child about the interview.

Question from Joseph Cascarelli, Candidate for School Board, Custer County Colorado:
How after only 13-17 years of life could students know what they need educationally to succeed in life? One doesn’t know what one doesn’t know. I have been a communications consultant to American business for over 23 years and have seen firsthand the kind of product our education establishment is producing. It is disappointing.

Nelson Beaudoin:
Please understand that we are not turning over the “keys to the Kingdom” to students. We are, however, allowing them to learn about decision making, democracy, and discourse in a safe environment.

Question from Peter Kozik, Research Coordinator, Syracuse University:
Why is it that more school leaders do not adopt your approach? What barriers make it difficult, in some cases unlikely, for leaders to connect more directly with the students they serve?

Nelson Beaudoin:
The age-old problem of what we experienced in school is the only picture that we see. In order to change the view, we must educate teachers and leaders one person at a time. It is really about leaving one’s comfort zone and trying new ideas with little fear of failure. I also think that there has been very little data and research done directly on student voice. Much has been done on motivation, and maybe we just need to highlight the connection between the two--getting kids to care.

Question from Laura Lotz, English Department Chair, Whitfield School:
I am curious about the ways in which you encourage students to participate in sex ed, drug, and alcohol programs. How much do you base on student suggestions? What are the parents’ reactions?

Nelson Beaudoin:
We have done a lot with drug and sex education and other controversial topics. It is really the belief that knowledge is power. We have had very little by way of parent complaints. In fact, the opposite has been our experience. Our efforts in this regard are really viewed as us intensely caring about our kids. We have a Captain’s Club that is taught by our superintendent of schools. This is really a drug education, decision-making and leadership course. Students need to abstain to be a member and it is a really big hit here. We also do a lot of mentoring of younger students in the district both in academic and social settings. Big kids always rise to the occasion.

Question from Kathy Brown, Parent, Houston County School, Ga.:
If the high school kids in Maine are involved with local decision making, is there any data showing correlation to higher student academic achievement and/or less numbers of school incidents?

Nelson Beaudoin:
I have pretty compelling data on both counts. Contact me and I can send you more information.

Question from Babe Willey, consultant/retired h.s. science teacher:
How is this “voice” implemented on a daily basis in the classroom for all students? Obviously all students aren’t involved in the many events listed in the story.

Nelson Beaudoin:
The most important component is, actually, in the classroom. Kids need to be given choices if we are to expect them to act responsibly. The student voice that the article addressed is really only the tip of the iceberg. Great teachers make hard work appear easy and part of that really centers on student engagement and excitement. Ownership and having a voice is critical to the learning process. In terms of the number of students involved in all of the activities, we are approaching about 70% of our student population and are striving for more.

Question from Carol Packard, Ed programs NYS OMH Psychiatric Facilities:
What is the role of the Bd of Ed in this process? Do students have a role/position on that board? Is there a curriculum that prepares students to participate?

Nelson Beaudoin:
We have two students serve on the school board. They have a visible vote, yet their vote does not count due to state statutes. There is a board training session that students attend and we have one junior and one senior on the school board. The term is two years.

Question from Andrew Dowling, Professor, Manhattanville College:
What oversight mechanism is in place to ensure that the students know the boundaries of their voice?

Nelson Beaudoin:
Great question. Whenever you tell students they have “voice”, one of three things can happen. They may go to frivolous items such as “open campus” or “soft-drink dispensers in the classroom”. They may also ignore you because they do not trust that the invitation is for real. Finally, they can do little things well and gain confidence as they go. With good advice, all three of these can be shaped into positive growth. We just need to keep re-directing them to what decisions they can make and what importance and value are associated with this issue.

Rich Shea, Teacher Magazine (Moderator):
Well, folks, our time is up. I want to thank Nelson Beaudoin for participating in this enlightening chat, and all of you who’ve asked great questions and checked in with us this afternoon. Until next time--so long.

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