The Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District (OUSD) was in a financial crisis. Budget cuts were inevitable and leaders faced some tough decisions about what to fund and what to discontinue. Several ideas for coping with the district's penury came from what some may think is an unlikely source: the students. Armed with a detailed proposal of suggested budget cuts and money-saving program alternatives, members of the All-City Council Governing Board (see article "A Snapshot") formally presented their ideas to members of the school board at one of the monthly meetings that the student leaders regularly attend.
It's not by chance that students have a seat at the decision-making table in OUSD. Embracing and nurturing student leadership is a districtwide effort that acknowledges the contributions students can make “in improving our schools,” states Michele Levine, youth leadership coordinator for the district. The district's Youth Leadership Program is designed to “increase the capacity of student leadership and involvement in school-, community-, and districtwide change,” Levine explains.
In addition to attending and presenting at school board meetings, teens like Michelle Lei, an 11th grade student at Oakland High School, can serve on the All-City Council. Student representatives from all the district high schools meet monthly to discuss what can be done about issues such as violence in Oakland and the image that the media present about Oakland and its youth. Issues selected by the students for the 2003–04 school year are improving attendance and decreasing truancy, student-teacher relations, and resource development.
Planting the Leadership Roots Early
Lei was one of four students who, along with Levine, presented the OUSD leadership model at the 2003 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show. The student leaders agreed that, although there was a strong tradition in student leadership at the high school level, leadership training must begin earlier in a student's academic life.
“It's good to have leadership programs in high schools,” observes Niema Jordan, “but it's even better to have them on all different levels.” Jordan points out that it's difficult for students to be leaders in high school if they “come from elementary and middle school with no leadership training.” Indeed, Jordan had been given opportunities to develop her leadership skills as early as 2nd grade, when she was trained as a mediator for the student conflict resolution program. When students start early, she says, there's a “difference in leadership ability when they get to high school.”
Levine agrees, adding that the district is always trying to find ways to involve younger students in leadership programs. For the first time, for example, the district has a functioning middle school All-City Council (ACC); students from nine middle schools meet monthly at various school sites. Levine is pleased with the work of that group to date: students on the middle school ACC produced a game show for the OUSD television cable station that focused on issues such as attendance and truancy, for example. The group also created a unity art project for the school board room.
According to Levine, the OUSD's effort to tap into youth leadership is an example of what education professor and researcher Carl Glickman once said about leadership: that it's important to determine where influence and power exists—and then plug into it. Never underestimate the power and influence of young people, Levine states. “If students are a part of the change process, we are more likely to see positive, sustainable change happen,” she says. “Students deserve to be citizens in their schools, not tourists, and adult educators have a responsibility to not only hear what students are saying but take action.”
Editor's Note: Michele Levine (email@example.com) has been the youth leadership coordinator for the Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District for two and a half years. Her presentation, Future Leaders Speak Out: Creating Capacity for Student Leadership, was recorded on audiotape and CD. Go to http://www.ascd.org to get more information and to order the program.