Involving students in LCAP process is a lesson in civic engagement

June 14, 2016

By Paul Richman, Chief of Staff, California School Boards Association (CSBA)

As school districts around the state update and adopt their latest Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs), it’s a good time to reflect on the value of involving local communities – and especially students themselves – in the process.

Stanford professor and education policy leader Linda Darling-Hammond recently noted in an interview with Calmatters that California’s new funding and decision-making approach, represented by the LCAP and Local Control Funding Formula, is groundbreaking – especially in the way it requires “local communities to be involved and really think about how they’re spending their money and whether they’re getting outcomes that they want.”

A key aspect of that enhanced involvement is the opportunity we have for more thoughtfully and authentically engaging young people in this process. In our increasingly polarized political environment, today more than ever, we need to provide students with guided practice in participating in policy decisions.

Many districts in California are embracing ways to ensure that students are an essential part of their LCAP process. This in turn, strengthens the LCAP itself by incorporating students’ perspective in shaping district priorities.

How can districts meaningfully engage students? We have learned that reaching and engaging students requires a creative and varied approach rather than simply trying to insert students into adult-focused outreach. Inviting a few student representatives to a meeting is not enough. By creating a variety of engagement opportunities including online surveys, student friendly materials, listening workshops during the school day, roundtables with student leadership groups, and student-led events – and by sharing back and discussing progress on LCAP goals during the year – schools and districts can better plug into the concerns and ideas that only students can bring to the table.

For instance, last year Santa Ana Unified School District initiated meetings at all 15 of its high schools. In total more than 2,000 students participated – many sharing input using mobile phones or devices provided by the district to respond to survey questions, the responses which were then shared on a big screen for further discussion. The district also placed posters with large QR codes at school sites to provide all students with an opportunity to provide input and ask questions using their personal devices.

In Fremont USD, secondary principals asked their student advisory classes to spend a period discussing the LCAP goals and asked for feedback on potential actions. Teachers led their classes through these discussions and collected student input for each group. Across the district, 115 classes contributed to the discussion, maximizing participation from students in all demographics.

These are just two of the myriad examples of ways that all districts can think creatively to meaningfully engage more students in the process. It’s important that input provided by students be communicated back to them, validating that their voices have been heard. Districts are finding that it is valuable to ask students both to reflect on progress toward current goals in the plan, as well as obtain their recommendations for new or adjusted goals moving forward. This feedback fosters a culture of respect and collaboration between students and the adults around them. It also models for students how to participate in civic life, and introduces them to key civic organizations, such as their elected school board.

Research has found that meaningfully supporting students in civic learning and engagement improves school culture, improves academic performance and strengthens the civic climate. When students are given the opportunity to go through the process of identifying and investigating problems, engaging in civil dialogue, communicating conclusions and taking informed action, they gain critical leadership and civic skills like problem solving and facilitation, teamwork, and constructive communication.

Engaging students in the process of setting priorities, allocating resources and communicating with peers is a meaningful exercise in civic learning. Young people need to know that their opinions and concerns matter and that they have the ability to affect the world around them. Showing them how to be effective citizens participating in the decisions of their own schools will deliver the best LCAP results and help develop civically engaged adults.