Beyond Student Council: Seeing Students as Leaders

Beyond Student Council: Seeing Students as Leaders

In a stirring display of teamwork, leadership, and democracy in action, a group of young people from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota secured $12 million in federal funds to build a new high school on their reservation. Their tenacity in making the dream of Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School into a reality reveals an often-overlooked aspect of school leadership—that students can be the drivers of meaningful change.

An August 2016 editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune heaped praise on the Leech Lake students, noting that they took the lead in calling attention to the alarmingly decrepit state of their school, a simple pole barn saddled with a “leaking roof, cold classrooms, and evidence of rodent infestation.” Longstanding neglect of these and other issues on the reservation had taken a toll on the students and their community, but they did not give up. The Star Tribune described the students as “passionate advocates” whose “tireless work” on behalf of their school included lobbying Congress alongside leaders from the reservation.

The Leech Lake students’ efforts yielded the money and attention necessary to address the poor state of their school (one administrator even pointed out that she believed some students had withdrawn due to unsafe conditions). Interestingly, most of the student protesters had graduated by the time the new school opened, leaving behind a lesson in civic engagement alongside the new facility. Although this case is specific to the Leech Lake Reservation, other examples of dynamic, transformative student leadership can be found across the United States.

For example, middle and high school students in Marion, Ohio, have the opportunity to participate in the Gear Up leadership program. Designed to help them tap into their own potential as leaders, the program required students to devote a whole day to learning and practicing community-focused leadership skills while following some very clear guidelines. An article in the Marion Star explained how students are taught to “be proactive; begin with the end in mind (planning); put first things first; think win-win; seek first to understand, then to be understood; synergize (work together); and sharpen the saw (take care of yourself),” with the overall aim of creating “a culture of student empowerment based on the idea that every child can be a leader.”

Also putting the student empowerment ideal to good use was Woodhull, Illinois, high school student Jack Bumann, who led a 2016 campaign to give student trumpeters an excused school absence if they needed time off to play the trumpet at a military funeral. Bumann—a high school senior at the time—detailed his path to legislative action in a local newspaper, and was eventually able to get a state bill passed.

In his story, reporter Gary Tomlin described how Bumann was struck by a recording of taps that he heard at an uncle's funeral, which he described as sounding static and unnatural. As a trumpeter, Bumann knew he could do better. In the wake of his organizing efforts, middle and high school students are now allowed time off so families can have a more personalized experience.

Illinois state legislator Dan Moffitt commended Bumann for his efforts, noting that the students testifying in support of Bumann’s legislation got “a real civics lesson” and adding that “this proves you can get your idea heard and it can become law.” Ultimately, these lessons in leadership offer an inspiring look at how students can have a long-lasting impact on their communities.

What does student leadership look like in your school or district?

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