WWL: The power of partnering with students for change

This blog is part of the ongoing “What We’re Learning” series
Guiding principles
Kari Nelsestuen
Blog Post

Students are at the heart of the work happening in schools, but too often, they are not at the table when it comes to solving problems. At Community Design Partners, we’ve spent the past few years listening to educators who embrace student-powered improvement, an approach that uses continuous improvement strategies to redesign systems with students – rather than adults designing for students. 


As more schools and districts learn about, commit to, and engage in improvement, our team has been inspired by many educators who want those efforts to include students.  Often, however, they need help to get started. Our new resource, Student-Powered Improvement, can help educators take the first step.  

Educators across the country who have taken a student-powered improvement approach describe four key benefits of engaging with students to solve problems: 

  • Solutions driven by students by inviting them into the process are more likely to effectively address students’ needs
  • Incorporating students’ unique identities, strengths, and needs can help create more inclusive school environments
  • Reimagining the hierarchy between adults and students can help empower students  
  • Empowering students through an improvement process instills agency in students they can apply in school and out of school.

The Student-Powered Improvement resource was inspired by the curiosity and commitment of educators across the country. For example,  when the Northwest Regional Education Services District launched a new improvement network in Oregon to improve ninth-grade success, they saw early success as well as challenges.  Challenges included the many early tasks needed to build school-based improvement teams, learning new continuous improvement practices, seeing the current system from multiple perspectives, and creating a shared goal across multiple contexts. 

Then, about a year into their work, educators found a key missing lever for change: students. With support from our organization, school staff recruited students to join their improvement teams as partners. Hearing directly from students about their experiences deepened adults’ understanding of the problems they were trying to solve. Students were also part of designing and testing 

solutions. As one educator said, “As a group of veteran educators, we like to think we know what our kids need. After engaging with students in this work for the past few years, I know their voices in decision-making and direction-setting are essential in our growth as a school and as teachers.”

Students benefited from network participation, too. They learned valuable skills as they conducted empathy interviews, prototyped ideas, and engaged in discussions with each other and with adults.  As one high school student noted, “One thing that I have learned from this network is how to be a problem solver so I can be a leader not only at my school but in my community as well.”

The resource includes many other case studies of what student-powered improvement can look like; providing the who, what, and why to partner with students. It also includes a tool that educators can use to situate themselves within the student-powered improvement framework to help teams position their current efforts and imagine more possibilities. 

At the center of every story we include in the web site is attention to the guiding principles of student-powered improvement; six important principles that help ensure that the youth involved can work from a place of agency and empowerment. The principles operationalize equity; move teams towards joy and connection; and foster authentic and meaningful partnerships to address challenging problems.  

Teams can explore these principles on the web site through self-guided courses focused on individual principles like Create spaces of care, truth and hope and Reimagine power and privilege

We’ve seen incredible examples of teams working together to create conditions for students and adults to thrive together. You can also get started now.  Take this short assessment to identify your school’s student-powered improvement strengths and possibilities. You’ll receive a customized action plan based on your results. We hope more educators will follow suit and this new resource will help them start their journey toward stronger improvement and stronger schools.  



Kari Nelsestuen is a co-founder of Community Design Partners. Community Design Partners: Community Design Partners helps organizations make lasting change in their communities. Student-powered improvement is one way we work with organizations and schools to achieve more equitable outcomes for all people.