A familiar component of the high school experience, student government isn’t a guaranteed conduit for student voice. To be effective, a student government has to offer young people a real say in matters affecting student life and ensure a broad range of voices are heard.
There’s no perfect model, of course, but for educators and student bodies looking for ways to take student voice further, the Hanover High School Council represents a time-honored approach to participatory democracy. Council members have decision-making authority on numerous issues, a structure designed to maximize student participation, and a history of student-staff collaboration.
“In this particular body, everyone is an equal,” said Hanover High School Associate Principal Debra Beaupre “It’s a very interesting model.”
For the uninitiated, sitting in on a Hanover High Council meeting can be a little dizzying. Comments zing and ricochet. Committee members deliver reports as though standing on a trap door attached to a timer. Rabbit trails and long-winded discussions are not tolerated.
In its 50 years of operation at Hanover High School, the Council has apparently never learned that government meetings are supposed to be long and boring. On every other count, though, the Council is a bonafide governmental body, following procedural rules, exercising decision-making authority, and serving in a respected advisory capacity to school administrators.
“It’s all about the students thinking about and talking about and [initiating] change in the classroom,” explained Vidushi Sharma, a Hanover High School senior who serves on the Council’s Executive Committee.
The Council works like this: About 35 students, elected by their peers, along with five staff members, five members of the Hanover community, and one representative from the Dresden School Board, meet weekly in the school auditorium. A six-member student leadership team known as the Executive Committee, also elected, runs the meeting, following parliamentary procedure. Any student, staff member, or even member of the public can attend a meeting and bring a motion to Council. (see graphic).
Many of these motions pertain to the student handbook, which is reviewed and approved for publication by the Council and administration before being approved by the School Board. The Council has clearly codified jurisdiction over all aspects of the high school except those related to budgets, hiring, and curriculum. They can legislate on practical matters such as allocating money for student activities, as well as issues at the very heart of the student experience. In recent years, the Council has been instrumental in creating more uniformity across different sections of the same class, limiting the number of tests a student has to take in one day, and changing the school mascot. A decade ago, the Council took the lead on creating a restorative justice program, which was passed unanimously by the school board in 2015.
These changes don’t happen overnight. Sharma and the other Executive Committee members each lead a standing committee devoted to specific areas, including administration, curriculum, and student life. These committees dig deep into all aspects of school life and stay in close communication with staff and administrators as well as the Council.
“The real work happens in committee,” said Linda Addante, who serves as Council Executive, a paid employee of the Council who provides professional support and assistance. “Student voice is extremely important on committees.”
Sharma, for her part, is a non-voting member of the Dresden School Board – a key role in ensuring students are part of the decision-making process and one that lawmakers recently embraced: In January, a new law requiring student membership on NH school boards, one of the first of its kind in the country, goes into effect.
“I’m the one person there who can provide input and opinions on what life is like at the school,” Sharma said.
Along with keeping the board apprised of Council activities, Sharma can weigh in on school board matters (other than those involving personnel). “Anytime the Council Representative wants to present their opinion, we listen,” said Dresden School Board Chair Rick Johnson.
Sharma calls the Dresden School Board “extraordinarily supportive.” Addante, a former member of the board and mother of six Hanover High School graduates, knows that hasn’t always been so. “It’s taken years,” she said.
Founded in 1971 and formally adopted by the school board in 1977, the Council was built on several guiding principles, including the notion that students, as well as faculty and community members, should be full partners in decision making and that schools should be places of courageous inquiry.
The structure and rules of the Council have changed over the years, but those principles remain key, Addante said. “[Students] have to feel like they have an administration who is going to listen to them,” she said. “You really need to have an administration who supports this idea of inviting students into important discussions.”
That doesn’t mean everything functions perfectly. Feelings run deep on some topics, and not everyone walks away happy, Sharma said. And while she personally feels heard and respected, she can’t guarantee that all students feel the same.
Like just about any governmental body, the Council sometimes struggles with gridlock or comes up against the limits of its power. The administration has veto power – which the Council can override by a ⅔ vote – and the school board has the ultimate say in matters that fall under its jurisdiction.
Vetoes, however, are rare, said Sharma – not because the Council and administration always agree, but because the two bodies have a history of open communication. “From the beginning, we try to make sure that everybody involved is informed,” Sharma said.
“We’ve always viewed this as a very democratic school system,” Johnson said. “The trust is really high between everyone.
It’s also important to keep the full Council and its constituents in the loop, Sharma said. “If you don’t go around asking people’s opinions, boy are you going to get burned on the vote.”
Jurisdictional debates are also common. When the proposal to change the school mascot (then a marauder) came before the Council, some people worried about the sensitive nature of the topic for young people, some of whom may have been victims of assault. “The staff got a little bit nervous, and they actually drafted a letter saying they didn’t feel like Council was the appropriate place for this to be discussed and decided,” Sharma recalled. Some Council members consulted the administration and school board, which both “absolutely supported the Council taking this on,” she said.
Ultimately, no issue is entirely off limits for the Council, even those that touch on areas outside their codified jurisdiction.
“We’re constantly having these discussions about how something can be addressed,” Sharma said. “A lot of it is case by case.”
“Nothing is beyond the reasonable curiosity and investigation of the students,” Addante added.
Equally important to asking hard questions is keeping careful records. Everything is documented to ensure future decision makers have precedent to support their practices and proposals. “Documentation is key to keeping that voice alive,” Addante said. “Once you have a setup like this, you cannot take it for granted.”
Educators interested in learning more about Hanover Council are encouraged to visit Hanover High School to see the Council in action. Visit the Council website for more information.
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