Design to Make a Difference at Highland Middle School: Empowering Students to Solve Problems at School

Students have a unique perspective on the life of a school. We wondered what would happen if we asked students to identify a problem at school, come up with a solution, and propose a project for a chance at a $100 budget to bring their solution to life. Working with a group of teachers, a rotating panel of students, and an administrator to review proposals, students whose projects were selected met with the team, got their idea celebrated, talked through the implementation of their project, and were offered support in putting their idea into action.

Our inspiration for the project was grounded in some design thinking work we did as an offshoot of our all school read program after we used some books focused on innovation. We drew from the Chicago Chapter of the Awesome Foundation model of soliciting, selecting, and funding small grants to make a community more awesome in some way. Our core group received a grant from local business partners in our school community to fund the project, breaking the $500 grant into $100 allotments to fund student ideas to make the school better.

Our students saw things that faculty did not. Oddly enough, many of the proposals that we received revolved around the bathrooms and other areas that staff did not regularly venture. The first selected project identified that in one hallway, the bathrooms had no place for students to set their books and belongings and proposed adding shelving. Such a simple, practical, necessary idea. And yet, for years this was an issue that had never been addressed. The student selected shelving, it was purchased with the budget money, and the student and his friends built the IKEA shelves (in seemingly record time!) which were then placed in the girls and boys restrooms for immediate use.

Even for projects that weren’t selected, we were able to connect students with people in the school who needed to hear their ideas and the obstacles that were being faced during the school day. For example, one group asked for new locks in bathroom stalls which led to the realization that the maintenance department needed to do some work in the student bathrooms. Another student who used a wheelchair had some ideas to address accessibility issues. While that proposed project far exceeded our group’s budget, we were able to connect the student with an administrator to hear her concerns and ideas.

While COVID closures have slowed us down, the ethos of the project remains. Two of the founding members of the group have been working with students to explore the future of school based on their traditional and remote learning experiences over the last several years. When we get back into the building more regularly, we look forward to the opportunity to get our group back together to continue to grow the program.

Creating space for student voice and agency benefits the school community in unexpected ways and gives students opportunities for leadership and involvement beyond the classroom.

Erin is the Learning Center Director at Highland Middle School in Libertyville. Working to foster a love of reading and build effective information skills, she strives to connect students and staff with resources in any environment in which they are learning.