Group of students talking together using their voice to be heard.

How can school districts prioritize amplifying student voice? Join Dr. Janet Pilcher, author of Hardwiring Excellence in Education, as she explores the impact of student feedback with Dr. Candace Pelt-Perez, Superintendent of Central Linn School District, and Celeste Van Cleave, District Business Manager. Together, they discuss the integration of student surveys into short-term improvement cycles, resulting in significant outcomes such as collaborating with students to address school bus safety concerns and expanding cafeteria menu choices. Listen now to learn how the collaboration between students and adults continues to drive positive cultural shifts within Central Linn School District.

This episode addresses questions such as:

  • What role does student input play in the overall strategic planning process?
  • How can results from student surveys be used to identify and implement short term cycles of improvement?
  • How does the partnership between students and adults cultivate trust and goodwill?

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Episode Transcript

Candace Pelt-Perez: One of the areas that we focused on on our scorecard was that we as a leadership team were going to elevate student voice into our cycles of improvement.


[Intro music plays in the background.] 

Janet Pilcher: Hello everyone, welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. Thank you for tuning in this week as we focus on what it takes for leaders to achieve important outcomes. And we engage in this work because we want our high-performing employees to stay with us and we want our parents and students to be engaged in the work that they do to make our schools the best connected to the people that we work with each and every day.

We focus on the pillars of success, student success. We focus on a pillar of people to make sure our employees have the opportunity to be the best at their work and the work that they do every day. And we focus on service, and we’re providing the best service to those we serve and to students and families who we have the privilege of serving each and every day.

So today I’m excited to welcome Dr. Candace Pelt-Perez and Ms. Celeste Van Cleave to our podcast. Dr. Pelt-Perez currently serves as the Superintendent of Central Linn School District, a small rural district in Halsey, Oregon. In her three years as Superintendent, she’s worked with the community, staff, students, and board to develop a comprehensive strategic plan to lead her district forward. She places a special emphasis on creating professional learning experiences that focus on student achievement and educator growth. In her 25 years of experience, she’s served as Oregon State Special Education Director, School District Special Education Director, building administrator, and classroom teacher.

If you attended our What’s Right in Education event last fall, you heard Dr. Pelt-Perez share how enacting a strategic plan and introducing a shared scorecard has built trust and created a sense of collective responsibility in her district. We’ll put the link to that presentation in the show notes.

Also joining us from Central Linn School District is Ms. Celeste Van Cleave. Ms. Van Cleave is in her 17th year as the business manager, where she manages all the financial functions of the district, including budget, payroll, food service, and liability. During her tenure as business manager, she’s navigated through several cycles of fluctuating school finances and a growing array of state reporting requirements, which has significantly broadened her expertise in school finance.

We’re glad Candace and Celeste are here today to discuss how they’ve elevated student voice throughout their district scorecard and strategic planning process. We’ll also hear how they cultivate buy-in amongst the staff and the outcomes they’ve achieved as a result of initiating this process. Let’s jump right in.


Janet Pilcher: So it’s with great pleasure that I welcome Candace and Celeste to our show today. Welcome, you all. Glad to have you with us.

Candace Pelt-Perez: Thank you.

Celeste Van Cleave: Thank you.

Candace Pelt-Perez: We’re so excited to be here.

Janet Pilcher: Good, good, good. So looking forward to the topic that we’re going to talk about, really focused on students and the work that you all are doing is, is really making an impact on students and the people that you work with every day.

So Candace, let’s start with you. As part of your district scorecard and strategic planning process, you all administered a student survey this past spring, and can you tell us how that student voice became so important to Central Linn and maybe what surprised you most about the initial input you received from students?

Candace Pelt-Perez: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for the question. So we worked with our community and our students and our families to develop our strategic plan. And as part of that, we included several students on the steering committee. And what we found was these students really became the bridge for a lot of divided groups of adults. So our political divide, a lot of pain past COVID, people didn’t trust the school, didn’t trust the system. And our students became the sense-makers between all of the data and the noise, and were able to share their goals and hopes for the future. And what we saw in that process was pretty powerful that adults softened and started to listen a little more and leaned in and engaged with some hopeful desires of their own of what they wanted for future generations of Central Linn. And so our students became this beautiful piece space in the middle.

What we learned out of that was that we needed to elevate and amplify our student voice and really spend time thinking about not just saying student voice mattered, but leveraging that in each of our decisions. We had historically worked on gathering student voice and input, but students didn’t feel like that was a big connection.

In the spring, we issued our student survey and our elementary students overwhelmingly loved their principal, which is not surprising, right? It was fantastic. And they also felt like their mean–all of their learning was meaningful. Two areas that were really surprising, our lowest scores were students didn’t always feel safe on our buses and our students didn’t have healthy meal choices.

We immediately tackled the bus issue and we had students separated. We did some work on that, asked students what was going on, and it was when they were riding with older students. So we separated those routes and made it different. So now elementary rides just with elementary students.

And then we leaned into this healthy food choices because this was surprising for all of us. And we felt like it was an area we could tackle and make some meaningful change. So we focused, leaned in heavy on “what are all of the steps and things that are in place when students are saying they don’t feel like they have a healthy meal choice?” And then “how could we change that going forward?”

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good, Candace. And we’ll talk a little bit more about that with Celeste in just a few minutes. I love what you said at the beginning as you started with, you know, the students kind of soften us a little bit like they calm us, right? Sometimes we as adults get carried away [laughs] in doing and thinking and managing in particular ways.

I love the way that you all really opened yourselves to listen to the students and allow them to kind of soften, not just you, but it really softened the conversation so that people got back to really what’s most important. Because at the end of the day, I really still believe, Candace, that that’s what most people want is what’s best for young people. I mean, we just have to believe that in our hearts.

Candace Pelt-Perez: Absolutely.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. So let’s talk a little bit more. So great work with the surveys and looking at the pinpointing the issues that are there. And again, if you didn’t ask them, you wouldn’t know that, right? So now that you know, you’re going to do something about it. So as a result of the student surveys, you became more committed to the student-centered improvement cycles with the goal of student input driving the actions that you as adults take. So tell us a little bit about that process and how you continued to move that into improvement conversations.

Candace Pelt-Perez: So one of the areas that we focused on on our scorecard was that we, as a leadership team, we’re going to elevate student voice into our cycles of improvement. And we centered on this idea of improving healthy choices for all of our meals for breakfast and lunch as a center because it was one of our lowest scoring areas.

And our students have particularly—we want to elevate that voice and we want to bring it together as we shared before. They’ve been the bridge for a lot of our work. So we thought this would be a perfect opportunity both to change the outcomes for our students, but also for our leadership team to practice and learn an improvement cycle.

This is a brand new process for a leadership team that’s been pretty young in this. And a PDSA plan was very novel and new. And working on the food service and the improvement here allowed us the opportunity to pick a short attainable manageable plan that our team could really get some traction and start to see results.

The other thing that happened through this process was leaders surfaced. Celeste and her team had not been leading instruction and became the quick front runners on leadership around improvement and how we do that, how we take a result, how we talk to our students, we test and try new things.

And then we come back and see if that worked, if we’re going to abandon it, if we’re going to accept it and adopt it. And so we, our leadership team grew as well because those voices who maybe on the team didn’t feel like they were always the front runners of that conversation became the center stage of elevating student voice. The results have just been amazing through this.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. As I’m listening to you talking about this, Candace, one of the things that’s going through my mind is making the complex simple. So sometimes when we talk about improvement cycles and we talk about ways of doing that, it seems so overwhelming. And what you all did is you took one piece of input from students, really built improvement around cycles around that and showed, taught others, you helped others learn how that cycle could work because you didn’t over complicate it.

And then you can see, well, if we do it here, then we can do it in another place and we can do it in another place. I love that. I love not only what you found and the impact that you made with students, but the way that you built that learning aspect in your organization and modeled that, really, really good work there.

Candace Pelt-Perez: Thank you.

Janet Pilcher: So, Celeste, let’s talk a little bit more about the, about your role, one of your roles in the district is to lead the lunch staff. And so you joined the team focused on improving the food service program. So what actions to get to those results, what actions did your team take as a result of the student feedback and what were some of the obstacles you faced that you had to overcome?

Celeste Van Cleave: So as the business manager, I oversee the financial side of our food service program. So certainly there’s a financial piece to this. It was a natural fit to “how do we improve the program?” And so some of the things we did, part of the student survey that Candace mentioned, we had over a third of our students saying that strongly, either strongly agreeing or disagreeing that our food choices were healthy. So we knew there was something we had to address there.

And in our feedback process, asking them what they did like or didn’t like about our food service program, it turns out our students are more cultured than we gave them credit for. They wanted sushi and salmon and all kinds of different options that we had never thought of in a school lunch program before. So then working with our food service director, how do we increase those choices?

So a lot of it has just been around increasing the choices, making sure that we have variety from day to day, from week to week, from month to month, that we’re not serving the same thing over and over again. But then also bringing in new things, utilizing seasonal fruits and vegetables. We live in an area where squash is a common thing in the fall. And so how do we incorporate that into our food service program?

And then one of the challenges with that is that the national regulations around food service serving, it did prove to be a little bit challenging. How do we make sure that we’re still meeting all of those nutritional requirements at the same time as making the food choices fun and interesting for the students?

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, gosh. And so you just continue to get that feedback from students. I mean, and they’re telling you, you know, what I love about this is unless you ask, you would never know that, right? That’s the important piece that you think you may be hitting the mark in terms of what students want. But unless you ask them, you wouldn’t know that they wanted those types of choices. And they’re seeing themselves and their input make a difference. Like they’re seeing the results, they’re seeing better outcomes from that process.

So let’s talk about it from the adult side, Celeste. So how did you get the food service staff to buy in and consider student voice in making the selections and providing the service to students?

Celeste Van Cleave: So I really have to give credit to Cindy Chapman, our food services director on this one. She is always wanting to learn and improve the program. And so when I approached her with this concept, she was like, “great, what can I do?” She took the initiative to go out and find the local blueberry farm for the blueberries.

It wasn’t a difficult process because the folks in our system have become so accustomed to learning and growing that we just took it in stride.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, I love this story again, because it’s the simplicity of the story that makes a huge impact. As you know, I write books or articles quite a bit. And these are the types of stories I really like to use because you can show some of the smallest things make a big difference, but we gain so much from building in that feedback process to really make a difference and listen to the input and take action on that input and continue to improve. And buy-in, it goes to leadership. And it also, it’s usually, I don’t know what you found, Celeste, but it’s usually not that hard for people to buy in when they’re looking at the feedback because most people want to do the right thing. Want to do the…

Celeste Van Cleave: Absolutely. And then part of the intrinsic piece that’s happening for her is that she’s continuing to get student feedback. The students are telling her every day, “we really love the yogurt parfaits.” You know.

Janet Pilcher: [laughs]

Celeste Van Cleave: It’s that appreciation that’s happening on an ongoing basis as a result of our change.

Janet Pilcher: And it makes her feel good.

Celeste Van Cleave: Absolutely.

Janet Pilcher: I mean, it makes them feel good what they’re providing. So it’s multiple wins there. So as we close today, Candace, let’s talk about outcomes. What outcomes have your teams achieved as a result of your collaboration with students?

Candace Pelt-Perez: Well, one of the immediate and evident choices I think you just heard is that our food service staff are feeling excited and happy about this work, which impacts our culture and our buildings. These are adults that see every student in our schools and they have the potential to really impact their day positively or negatively. So when our staff are coming in excited and happy, that translates to our students. And they’re immediately seeing that our food service director noted, I got a little note about, “I really appreciate all of these offerings and changes. Thank you so much.” And she said, “I’ve never received that or thought about that.”

And that has like a contagious effect on our teams, because she’s sharing that not just with us, but with other colleagues and other staff members. So we start to think about how student voice can play a part in that.

The other big lesson that we’ve learned in this is, like you mentioned, starting small matters and creating some actionable steps where people feel like they can get momentum and traction in that. And so we’ve started to work on including our students in a variety of places where we didn’t have it perfect. It was a little messy in the middle, but we just kept leaning into that.

This includes a, we have a high school selection and we included students on that panel. And that wasn’t always students who were successful in our high school. We had a variety of voices in that. And that was, again, it was a bit messy, but it proved to be really positive, both for the adults in this space, but also students to provide their perspective.

We have students now on a variety of committees that serve and students are sharing their voice and opinions around our budgeting process. So part of this has shifted Celeste now in her role as business managers, thinking about different ways to include students in the budgeting process.  So the next podcast, you wanna come back and ask about how students at the high school and fifth grade have impacted our budget. And pretty exciting work that’s on the horizon here.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, absolutely. So I can’t wait for that one. And just congratulations to you, Celeste, as a business manager. Sometimes from an operational standpoint we’re just so focused on the operations aspect, but you open the door to look at it from different lens. And the benefits to you, to your team, and the recognition that your team’s getting as well as the impact that you’re making on students. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.

And Candace, as the district continues to move forward, you’re a textbook example of really taking the principles, the Nine Principles, you can see all of the Nine Principles thread through this example. So just a textbook example of good work that you’re doing. Thank you both very much.

Candace Pelt-Perez: Thank you so much for the time.

Celeste Van Cleave: Yes, thank you for the opportunity.


[Outro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: I appreciate the conversation I had with Brian today. It was great to listen to his insight and the experiences that he and his leaders and team are having in their school district that impact students and their families to the greatest extent. I appreciate the work that Brian is doing.

By joining us on this deep dive through the strategic planning process, you can see that organizational success depends on both vision and execution. And once we communicate that vision and gather input from our stakeholders, we can start deciding what success looks like and implementing our plan with precision. That’s what it looks like to commit to excellence.

If you enjoyed this episode, please make sure you’ve subscribed to the podcast so you don’t miss our next one. Next week, we invite our partners from the Central Linn School District to share specific actions their district is taking to increase student voice and engagement in the strategic planning process.

I thank you for listening to this episode of Accelerate Your Performance. I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the Nine Principles Framework so that we can be our best at work. Have a great week, everyone.

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If you enjoy the podcast, explore Janet’s latest book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education. Each chapter focuses on the Nine Principles® Framework offering tools and tactics to enhance leadership skills and elevate organizational performance.

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