Walking the Walk – Students as Partners in Program Design

Students in discussion

I’ll be honest. It’s hit the point where even I–a seasoned educator–am overwhelmed by the buzzwords: Proficiency, 21st Century, Personalized… It is easy to feel swamped by the jargon.  (“How do students’ PLPs align with their PBGR’s/GX’s?”) There are days when conversations in staff rooms, meeting rooms, and classrooms feel like swimming in alphabet soup.

There is one particular buzz-phrase that stands out, however–in large part because it is the easiest to say, and the hardest to do. That phrase is “student-centered.” As educators, we hear it all the time (“student-centered classrooms;” “student-centered assessment,” etc.). But what does it mean for learning to be truly student-centered? And what does it mean for school redesign itself–the process we are engaging in to transform our schools–to be student-centered?

The ongoing development Burlington City & Lake Semester program is a unique opportunity to keep students at the center. It began in June, when one-third of our 50+ Visioning Session participants were youth. Today, our collaboration is richer, and deeper. Thanks to a unique partnership between the BCL Project Team and Burlington High School’s School Innovation Seminar class, students are now at the heart of our work.

School Innovation Seminar [SIS] is a year-long elective class for a diverse, multi-age group of BHS students. It begins with the assumption that students already have great insight and wisdom about school, and uses the study of school as a springboard for curiosity, collaboration, and agency. Over the course of the year, SIS students explore learning itself, how schools are organized, and how new innovations in teaching and learning can alter the structure, purpose, and feel of school.

The other core element of SIS is the model of youth-adult-partnership. When the course was developed in 2012, it was clear that most “youth voice” in school change efforts was tokenistic at best. Typically, one or two students would be invited into adult-centered spaces, without context or real empowerment; at a certain point, the entire meeting would stop, and the adults would turn to the students and say “What do you think?” Youth-adult-partnership is a very different model, one that assumes that the best, most authentic and most sustainable decisions can only be made when educators and students truly collaborate.

So far this year, the BCL project team has worked with SIS students on five separate occasions. Students have used Dilemma Protocols to act as formal consultants on authentic professional questions. Students have participated in collaborative design-thinking work, offering essential perspective and feedback on BCL’s program design. They have also engaged with community partners, to help guide the plans for student-outreach and shape the design of communications materials.

There is no way to exaggerate how impactful this ongoing partnership has been. Every time we invest in that partnership, we are both humbled and awed by what students bring to the table. It also just feels right–and at this point, it feels natural too.

Five years ago, SIS was developed with a vision that any important decision in our schools that affects students should feel underbaked, and inauthentic, without the insight of youth. While the greater school system has quite a bit more work to do to realize this vision, BCL is helping blaze the trail.

  • Dov Stucker

1 Comment

  1. Thank you team! The Burlington Electric Department and the City Sustainability Program look forward to being involved in this important initiative. If we don’t engage and empower students with the knowledge and skills they need to tackle the our big challenges and embrace a new world of possibilities, we’ve lost a tremendous opportunity. Their participation is fundamental 🙂


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