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Student Voice as a Guiding Principle in School District Reform

BOULDER, CO (January 6, 2022) — School policy is generally made from the top down. But there are opportunities and benefits to including community members, including students, in the change process.

Kate Baca and Michelle Renée Valladares of the Research Hub for Youth Organizing at the University of Colorado Boulder explain how engaging students in transforming education systems can lead to creative, sustainable, culturally relevant solutions, in a new policy memo titled Centering Students’ Past and Present to Advance Equity in the Future.

The policy memo is centered on student recommendations put forth at the conclusion of a six-week summer institute between Cuba (New Mexico) Independent School District and the University of Colorado Boulder. Students were asked to engage with different research mediums (such as survey methods, interviews, qualitative data analysis, and photovoice) in order to better understand the context of education within their community. Student researchers were tasked with understanding the education history of their community, as well as the present equity aims of Cuba ISD.

Intended to be a launching point for future debate and discussion in the district, and to provide district and state leaders a succinct summary of recommendations directly from their own student researchers, the policy memo groups the 11 student recommendations into five broad categories: 1) Re-envision and expand mental health services for Cuba ISD students, 2) Create and ensure access to creative learning and community building spaces, 3) Build stronger student-teacher relationships and support Cuba ISD teachers, 4) Re-envision and expand ongoing college access pipelines, and 5) Build more opportunities for student voice and authentic engagement with decision making.

While this policy memo centers a single district in recommendations, it implicates more than that district’s efforts to put student voice at the center. The described engagement and process can be used throughout the U.S. to center student knowledge. Similarly, the ideas and thoughts of this cohort of intellectually, culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse low-income students is instructive for the nation as a whole. The gaps these students identified suggest where our school systems need the most support, and their solutions provide us with creative ways to get there.

Find Centering Students’ Past and Present to Advance Equity in the Future, by Kate Baca and Michelle Renée Valladares, at:

This policy memo was made possible in part by funding from the Cuba Independent School District.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), a university research center housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education, produces and disseminates high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. Visit us at: