Reflections from the Council Executive

First and foremost I believe that Council is a learning laboratory for civic engagement. I think it works as a learning laboratory specifically because of the processes that are in place. This process depends on an authentic learning experience in which students are given permission to talk about what matters to them, are invited to the decision-making table, and are held to a high standard of seeking input from all constituents in HHS.

This process has been and continues to be long, demanding, frustrating, and challenging to all who are engaged in it. This process also provides opportunities for authentic learning about the demands of successful system change, the power of civic engagement, and the value of consensus building. This process has the real possibility of building a more diverse, equitable and inclusive community of learners.

Council has over the years successfully passed motions that impacted policy. But this only happened after a long process of building consensus and a willingness by all involved to keep going when challenges arose. It also depended on the school board’s willingness to work with Council and to be primary educators in the
process of developing a document that fulfilled the legal tenets required for district policy adoption.

The Mascot Motion is a recent example of Council’s potential to engage all learners, adults and students alike, in an important matter. The Mascot Motion challenged Council to do the work of supporting difficult conversations. Council formed an Ad Hoc Committee to conduct research. Six subcommittees were formed that included a total of 26 students, 6 staff members and 2 community members. The Mascot Committee’s fifty-one-page report made possible an informed discussion. With full support from the school board and the principal, Council successfully opened and held space for the school community to engage in difficult conversations about physical assault, the school’s culture, and the power of symbols to promote violence against women. That effort changed minds and hearts as courageous voices helped us begin the journey to create a more safe and inclusive school community. There is still more to be done and the call for change resounds across the years.

I have witnessed Council’s work over the years on other major motions that changed the school’s culture. They include the Honor Code, the Academic Integrity policy, the Co-Curricular Code of Conduct, the Condom Distribution Motion and the Restorative Justice Motion. Each one had a unique path from Council to final approval by the school board and the adopted language now found in the HHS Handbook.

The Condom Distribution Motion took 22 years,  the Academic Integrity Policy took 27 years, Restorative Justice took 7 years, the Co-Curricular Code of Conduct took 4 years, the Mascot Motion will likely be realized in a span of two years.

My experience has taught me that a process that supports sustainable change in the high school takes time. It takes time because as a democratic school we are committed to inviting all members of the community to be involved and because there is a system of approval that demands and recognizes multiple layers of decision making. These layers of decision making are a training ground for what is needed to be successful in real-life sustainable systems change. Navigating for lasting change requires learning the skills of collaboration, communication and building connections with empathy.

As I reviewed the history of Council motions I was struck again with the rich experience that Council offers to all members of the Hanover High School Community. I am reminded of what Bob McCarthy, HHS principal in 1972, said about the goals of Council:
– Teaching youth to identify with the process of
– Training youth to make personal decisions
– Developing in students a tolerance for ambiguity

For fifty years Council has fulfilled these pedagogical goals and the process works best when individuals in the community are fearless about sharing their perspectives and when administration and school board members actively invite and support staff, students and community members to revisit topics of importance. We must give ourselves permission to change course as the process uncovers new information and be open to new ideas that will better inform the final outcome.I have come to fully appreciate that it is not so much what happens in the Council meeting as what happens outside of those meetings…the conversations, the debates that challenge our thinking, and the connections we make with one another.

More than anything, Council’s responsibility is to set the ball in motion and remind us of the rules of engagement for respectful conversations with people who don’t agree with us, and who are not the majority or the loudest voice. Council’s responsibility is to offer an example of what is possible when we intentionally seek out the perspective of others and with our collective agreement work to advance together. Council is after all these years, a process that has existed and continues to evolve as our community grows in its understanding of the value of student voice in educating our graduates to be engaged citizens beyond their high school experience.


*This article was first printed in a special edition of the Broadside that celebrated Council’s 50th Anniversary.

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