A School that Gives Students a Big Leadership Voice

Unlike most American high schools, student leadership at Harwood Union High School isn’t limited to campaigns for cleaner bathrooms or[…]Continue Reading

A multiracial group of high school or college students in a library reading room, carrying book bags and textbooks, smiling at the camera. The young man standing in the middle, wearing eyeglasses and carrying a book and bookbag looks like he is the leader of the group.

Unlike most American high schools, student leadership at Harwood Union High School isn’t limited to campaigns for cleaner bathrooms or better cafeteria food.

School Leaders Now wants to give props to Amy Rex and Lisa Atwood, co-principals of Hardwood Union High School in Moretown, Vermont, not far from the state capitol. At Harwood, students occupy five of 14 seats on the school leadership team. And they aren’t only focused on cafeteria food and social events.

From the Bonner County Daily Bee:

When new teachers are hired, report cards are redesigned, or honors classes are revamped, students are at the table, debating, sharing research, listening, and voting. That work has made this unassuming school in Vermont’s Green Mountains a national model for educators who believe students deserve the right to play a central role in creating their school experience.

“It’s definitely empowering,” said Cole Lavoie, a senior who’s on the school leadership team, working with teachers and administrators to figure out how honors classes should be restructured in the proficiency-based system that Vermont is phasing into its schools.

“Harwood is ahead of the curve because of the number of different ways they’ve institutionalized student voice,” said Catharine Biddle, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Maine, who studied the school’s relationship with Up for Learning, a community group that provides leadership training for its students and staff members. “Involving students as deeply as they have, in as many ways as they have, helps avoid a common mistake of seeing student voice as monolithic: that as long as we get a couple of kids giving us feedback, that’s student involvement.”

Students as Change Agents


At Harwood, governance works like a mini-democracy. Students or faculty members can propose a bill to change an aspect of school life, and it is circulated, discussed, revised, and voted on. Students who have learned leadership skills in the Up for Learning training, known as YATST, or Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together, lead many of those discussions.

Proposals typically arise from research: Issues of concern surface through surveys and school meetings. Recent rounds of that research showed that students wanted to give teachers feedback about their instruction. The proposal passed, and now students and teachers are working in committees to design feedback forms.

“Some teachers are better than others, and it’s important for us as students to be able to say what’s working well for us and what isn’t,” said Anna Van Dine, a senior who’s a member of Harwood’s student government.

One of the big issues at Harwood lately has been revising the school schedule to support the new proficiency-based approach, which is supposed to allow students to customize their learning and to demonstrate competency in a variety of ways. Many students wanted to add an eighth block to the seven-block schedule, to make space for independent projects, teacher consultations, or added classes, and they brought their proposal to the administration.

Anneka Williams, a junior, said that trying to get their idea approved offered her a living education in civics. In meetings with administrators and the town’s school board, she learned about the complicated web of factors that go into changing a school schedule, like bus transportation, class-size mandates, and fixed budget line items.
“I found out that it’s not as simple as we thought,” she said.

Where else are students playing a big role in student leadership? You can read more about Harwood Union High School here.