Civic Lives of Students

By Susan Black

Last fall, while visiting a 1,000-student high school, I stopped to admire student council campaign posters that were taped to lockers and corridor walls. One poster featured a large photo of a copper penny superimposed with a picture of a senior class candidate for treasurer and the slogan “Trust Zeke to account for every cent.”

The principal introduced me to students who were working on campaign speeches. A junior running for class president said she’d organize a petition drive to give honor roll students open-campus privileges. A self-proclaimed “bookworm” sophomore said she’d save the school library from proposed budget cuts.

What happens after students get elected to student councils? At best, the process gives students a voice in school governance and prepares future leaders.

But there’s a “cynical” side that can do more harm than good, say Stanford University’s Daniel McFarland and Carlos Starmanns, who’ve recently expanded their 2004 study of high school student councils in 207 public and 66 private schools.

They’ve found, for instance, that students who are denied a voice in how their school is run become discouraged and disillusioned. Many students are indifferent about voting, especially if they perceive an election to be nothing more than a popularity contest. 

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