It’s vital to include student voice when making decisions that impact the learning environment. Leaders often say student voice is important; but unfortunately, it sometimes is an afterthought and not integral to the decisions. As districts identify and define values, student voice is where the journey begins.


During the 2020-2021 school year, Portage Public Schools began to build out key values in preparation for their 100th anniversary. The first task was to assemble a large team to complete the process. Notably, Superintendent Mark Bielang determined the right place to start was with the students.

He asked:

  • Which values are important to you?
  • What does equity mean to you?
  • What should be included in our “declaration statement” about who we will be for the next 100 years?

This honest input from students could not have taken place without an existing, trusting relationship between leaders and students. In this case, Superintendent Bielang gathered input specifically from his student board of advisors. This group of students has a long-standing relationship with Mr. Bielang, and he meets with them regularly to gain their insight and ideas from across the district. He counts on them to bring issues to his attention that he might not hear about from others. They are the perfect group to provide initial input.

This ongoing relationship allows students to share their true thoughts and recommendations on the issue of values for the district. More importantly, they know their voice is important.

What is important to the students in portage public schools? Three students provide their answers which include that student voices are heard, that students of color feel more safe, and that the district think proactively about the education students receive.PRIORITIZE THE STUDENT VOICE TO SHAPE CULTURE

Interestingly, the student response and the adult survey response align in many ways. Over 2,200 survey responses were collected from stakeholder groups including board members, employees, parents, community members and students across multiple grades and schools. As Mr. Bielang said, “We have a culture of listening to feedback in our school system and our stakeholders have the expectation that we will solicit their input and act on it.”

Using the feedback, the Portage Values Team continues the process of developing values, a declaration statement, and defining equity. Overall, 2,820 survey comments offer ideas for word choice, definitions and other input for the team to consider. While the review process is time-consuming, it demonstrates that all voices matter. Now, stakeholder groups will soon review the draft values, declaration statement and definition of equity, and again offer their feedback and suggestions. What group will be the first to see the draft and offer input?

Students, of course!

Leaders in Portage Schools boldly prioritize the student voice to shape school culture. In this video from the What’s Right in Education conference, you can hear more from Portage leaders about this journey.

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