Tips for Principals from Chicago High School Students

March 7, 2013

Last October, when 17 high school students from the nonprofit Mikva Challenge presented their latest report to the Chicago Public Schools, their staying power as a voice for public education was palpable. The city’s new school CEO, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, was Chicago’s third in two years—while Mikva Challenge youth had been lobbying for citywide school improvements for almost 15 years.

The students’ report, Creating a Positive and Rigorous School Culture: A Guide for Principals,offered 24 tips principals and teachers could follow when lagging academics and disruptive student behavior collide, often with disastrous results.

“We wanted to do nothing less than change education in Chicago,” says one of the report’s authors, senior Christopher Tso.

In previous years, the Mikva Challenge Education Council—drawn from high school students across the city—had studied and provided suggestions in relation to school violence and technology integration. This year, they chose school culture as their target. The young researchers identified five essential elements for promoting a positive and rigorous school culture: supportive staff and administration, motivated students, rigorous classes, safety and discipline, and student involvement. Then, over the course of three months, they visited Chicago high schools well regarded for their “positive” school culture, as well as schools working hard to turn their culture around. They surveyed 750 students (taking advantage of September’s teacher strike to engage students) and interviewed dozens of administration and faculty.

Some of the Education Council members attended the very schools their report aimed to fix. Others, like Chris Tso, were fortunate to attend one of Chicago’s top performing high schools, where a positive and rigorous school culture were part of the fabric. “My interest wasn’t for myself,” Chris explains, “but for students whose school don’t offer the opportunities I’ve had, students whose school pushes them out instead of pulling them in.”

Many of the tips offered by Mikva Challenge youth are seemingly small: a suggestion box in the front office for students and staff; teachers beginning their class with a quick warm-up activit; putting student artwork on the walls. Other recommendations run deep: using Socratic seminars to develop students’ critical thinking; resolving conflicts through peace circles instead of detention and suspension; involving students in the hiring and training of security guards.

In their conclusion, the report’s authors note that their ideas not only “have the potential to redesign the current system,” but also to establish “new ways for students to develop social and mental skills.”

Actors, not bystanders

Started in 1998, Mikva Challenge began as a tribute to former White House Counsel, Judge and U.S. Congressman Abner Mikva and his wife Zoe, a lifelong education activist. Since then, it has reached over 30,000 Chicago youth in 96 schools through its elections, activism, and policymaking programs. By providing opportunities for city teens to connect with peers and adults around political issues—as well as campaign and interact with candidates and elected officials—Mikva Challenge builds youth civic knowledge, if not igniting a passion for politics. As these high school students identify, research, and lobby for issues at the school and city level, they become real political participants, joined in a determination to make Chicago a more just and equitable city.

Perhaps most important of all, they become leaders, even imagining for themselves a life as an elected politician.

“I soon realized,” Zoe Mikva said in a 2009 interview, “that the program does more than teach these youth how to participate in a campaign. It teaches them how to lead on issues that matter to people.”

Not surprisingly, when the tally of Chicago youth killed by gun violence hit 23 a few years ago, Mikva student leaders stepped in and trained their peers in conflict resolution. They also challenged their classmates to develop their own violence prevention programs at their schools. Aware that “action civics” was not in the repertoire of most Chicago public school teachers, Mikva youth and staff formed the Center for Action Civics to provide teachers and schools with the tools and strategies needed to engage young people in high quality civic participation. They have since begun a national network for action civics.

This February, in a city that seems more rocked by turmoil than ever, the Mikva Challenge held its first annual “Youth Solutions Congress,” bringing together 400 youth from across Chicago. Students voted on 50 solutions, narrowed down from over 200 collected by Mikva youth from more than 35 school and community organizations. The solutions ranged from keeping recreational facilities at schools open in the evenings to requiring every school to offer comprehensive mental health services for students.

There’s a motto at the Mikva Challenge, “Democracy is a VERB.”

“Democracy is the great American experiment,” notes Brian Brady, who has led the Mikva Challenge for twelve years. “Every generation we have to give birth to it anew.”

Watch What Kids Can Do's cool interactive infographic about the Mikva report:


Download Creating a Positive and Rigorous School Culture: A Guide for Principals (PDF format).