What Happens When Students Lead a School

Weeks ago, Robert C. McNair (founder and owner of the Houston Texans), got in trouble when he spoke his mind about the NFL players who protested during the national anthem. He said, “We can’t let the inmates run the prison.” Oops. Poor choice of words. His statement didn’t go over well with most of those who heard it, and his words became the topic of conversations on ESPN and other network talk shows.

I’d like to examine the assumption behind his words and offer a counter-intuitive idea that flies in the face of his logic. McNair’s misused figure of speech (the cliché is: we can’t let the inmates run the asylum) simply means that those who merely belong to a group should not be allowed to run it. Stated another way, the expression is used to describe leaders surrendering power to those being led.

I propose that effective leaders are not weaker, but stronger, when they invite those being led into the leadership process. I recently had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Gary Davison, Principal of Lambert High School just north of Atlanta, GA. Gary has done an amazing job of empowering students to “own” their school.

Q: Why let students help lead the school?

When Gary first became principal at Lambert High School, he knew his students would have only 720 days with him as their principal. Knowing his limitations, he knew he’d have to empower them to “own” their growth. (He wanted each class to be full of leaders upon graduation.) He was also committed to creating a positive campus culture, along the way. Fortunately, these two go together. Letting young people weigh in on the look, feel and makeup of the school actually fostered leadership and metacognition—ownership—on the part of students.

Q: How can you let students help lead the school?

As the founding principal nine years ago, Gary was responsible to determine the atmosphere of his new high school. Prior to its opening, one of his first steps was to meet with prospective middle and high school students to let them talk about what they imagined would make it a great school. He allowed them to choose:

  • the school mascot, the school logo and the school song
  • some of the traditions they would instill
  • how the culture could help students thrive

In short, his students put their stamp on the school. Many of those students went on to be leaders. In addition, Gary created a local school council made up of parents, teachers and business leaders. Later, however, they chose to add a student as a voting member on the school council. This teen would have a voice to talk about issues kids are facing and to weigh in on decisions.

Q: What do you do personally to build leadership at every level?

Outside of class—Gary hosts a Principals Advisory Group where students talk about issues that are important for him to know. From this group, it was clear there were kids falling behind academically and socially. So, they changed their schedule to have a Lunch and Learn for students, giving them more face-to-face time with teachers and counselors—as well as allowing time for rest or planning. Students can relax, catch up or grow.

Gary said, “Before Lunch and Learn, each day had seven periods with a 25-minute lunch. Things were rushed. We went to an eight-period day so kids had a 50-minute lunch twice a week. This offers an element of choice and support: half the school is “off” for either of the periods to relax; or they can go to nine academic areas if they need help. We also have an area for students who are struggling the most. Adults check in with these students to monitor progress. Eventually, we wean them off this check in. We put in social-emotional pieces too. We bring in therapy dogs to relieve stress for students. Giving them a choice is huge. They have more control of their day.”

Q: Do you have a pipeline for emerging leaders?

Gary feels Lambert High School has many leadership pipelines, one of which is the Ambassador’s Group. It’s a club where students can opt in as the “face of the school.” They help with orienting new students; they give tours to visitors or prospects; they escort other students if they are injured; and they get to lead events and assemblies. Is this club attractive? You bet it is—95 kids are taking part in it this year. It’s often a preparation for student council, team captain, and advisory groups.

Q: What advice do you have for educators/administrators in regard to this?

Gary replied, “I’ve worked in various settings, both high and low needs schools. My best advice is: trust the kids; build trust into the culture and expect it to come back. Let kids lead. Trust them with the keys to rooms; they need to feel like they’re being trusted. This comes with time and conversation; they’ll live down or up to our level of expectation. Poor behavior will happen but separate that from the student. Treat them as human beings. Good school cultures are all about trust. Students should be thanking you in the end because they saw accountability and responsibility as growth enhancers.”

Gary Davison and Lambert High School embody the phrase: students support what they help create. My hat is off to him and to their staff and faculty.

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What Happens When Students Lead a School