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New Case Study Shows the Power of Student Voice to Transform Our Schools


We’re excited to share key findings from a case study released by the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools showcasing the lasting impact student voice engagement has in our schools. The new report “Nothing About Us Without Us” examines the last decade of CFJ’s work organizing with student leaders in the East Side Union High School District in San Jose. 

From budget decisions and designing curriculum, to mental health and safety policies prioritizing Black and Brown students and families, student leaders have transformed the district’s approach to equity work and racial justice.

“Many understood it [youth voice, power, and participation] was the right thing to do, but they often said ‘this is not going to work’ or ‘let’s not go there’. Now, they’ve recognized that student voice is not only ‘not that scary’, but it is actually transformative for students and adults.” – Rosa De Leon, CFJ Strategy Director and ESUHSD alum. 

While the work hasn’t always been easy, we’ve seen amazing leadership and passion from students and educators in ESUHSD to keep moving forward. Now, we’d like to share 5 key lessons from the case study and our work with the district. 

  1. School Structures and Culture Must Be Ready For Change
    • Schools and districts must be ready and willing to evaluate their structures and culture at every level. 
    • “We come to the district or to our school’s leadership meetings and they tell us that our voices matter, then we go back to the classroom and our voices do not matter at all.” – student leader with ESUHSD. 
    • If the classroom and school site culture don’t match the district-wide message to students, they won’t feel empowered as co-creators or valued as leaders. 
    • How to address: Design partnerships that empower teachers and students to co-design what the student voice and equity work will look like on their campus. 
  2. Student Engagement Requires Seeing Youth As Valued Leaders
    • “We came in and knew the structure and culture was not going to be us doing [work] to young people, as adults to youth, and not doing for young people, that has a lot of savior complex, but actually doing with young people. So leading with that idea of co-creation and true collaboration.” – Taryn Ishida, Executive Director, Californians for Justice.
    • How to address: Empathy interviews between students and staff can help disrupt adult bias of youth leadership. 
  3. Student Voice Doesn’t Mean Discord 
    • There’s an assumption that students will be anti-district or anti-educator when sharing their feedback and voices, but that is not true. 
    • Empowering students doesn’t mean they are pitted against adults on campus and it doesn’t mean educators lose their power – it means more folks within the school community are empowered to do the work together. 
  4. Youth Leaders Are Committed to Centering the Most Marginalized 
    • Researchers found that once students are empowered as leaders on school and district decisions, they repeatedly look for ways to center the most marginalized student populations. 
    • “The District always recruits students from the leadership class for meetings, and we need to expand recruiting to other students because I think every student has something valuable to say, like shy students. I always tell them, ‘You need to be in this space; we really need to expand the voices that we’re hearing from.’” – Lupe Navarro, CFJ youth leader and ESUHSD alum. 
  5. Youth Voice Builds Power Beyond the Classroom
    • Once students are valued as leaders in school transformation work they are much more likely to continue exercising their voices and organizing in the community. 
    • This power is crucial for Black and Brown students because it encourages them to stay engaged in school and the larger community. Even after their time at high school is over, students who have been valued as leaders continue to stay civically active – carrying on the work to transform outcomes for their community and shape our democracy.

Transforming our schools into places of equity is challenging work, but we know it’s made better when students, educators and community partners work together. For more information on how to empower student leaders, build relationships and prioritize racial justice and equity, visit our resources page.

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