Empowering students, empowering change in school

Kim Manning Ursetta, NBCT shares ways to empower students in this third blog for the Teacher-Powered Schools Roundtable.

Imagine a culture where students are empowered to make positive change.  As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” At the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA) in the Denver Public Schools, our student council is encouraged to create change that impacts their own lives, as well as their classrooms, school, and community.

MSLA is a teacher-powered school, and our teachers are encouraged to create innovation that contributes to a positive culture and climate.

As a school with the word “Leadership” in its name, we focus daily on creating leadership opportunities and grooming leadership skills in our students.

All classrooms have a fifteen-minute leadership block that is spent developing these skills, and we also have an elected student council that represents our classrooms in kindergarten through fifth grade.

When MSLA opened in 2008, I began our student council in order to teach democratic principles, community service, leadership skills, and school pride. In my research, I found that most elementary school student councils focus primarily on fundraising through a school store. Most ignore the important leadership skills and student empowerment that can be harnessed by elementary-aged children. Over the years, MSLA’s student council has focused on representative leadership by learning about the branches of government and the responsibilities of elected officials. We have taken field trips to the capitol and the mayor’s office, and we have even held forums with our state representative and city councilman.

Our student council representatives are elected by their classroom peers, and take their roles seriously! We meet every Wednesday for forty-five minutes during “Passion Areas,” a time when students can learn about a topic of their choosing that excites them. In addition to making decisions about school spirit days, we identify changes that we want to make in our school and community, and create an action plan to address them. For example, students wanted to “make the school beautiful” by adding artwork in the hallways and exterior of the building.

MSLA was fortunate to receive an “Outreach to Teach” grant from the National Education Association, and their dream was realized! Our students worked with our art teacher to design and paint murals that spanned the length of the building outside, creating a welcoming and student-centered environment for our school. In addition, the students wanted an electronic display monitor mounted in our lobby so that student accomplishments, work, and events could be displayed for all to see. Finding ways to recognize our students and show pride in our school has changed our school culture tremendously!

Bullying was another issue that students raised. Students were concerned, especially in the upper grades, about name calling and friends not getting along. Together, we brainstormed ways to positively address this important issue.  Our students voted on creating a “Kindness Week,” where students could recognize each other for doing something kind. Recognizing the goodness in others gave students a new appreciation for treating each other well. Students then wrote the kind person’s name on a star, and our hall was shining with good examples!

At Thanksgiving time, our students grew concerned about the homeless in our city. Homelessness has been a concern in Denver, and there were often homeless people in the neighborhood, as well as news stories that students had seen on television.  Grabbing this “teachable opportunity,” our student council sprang into action and held a food and warm clothing drive. We donated the items to a neighborhood food bank. The pride in our students’ eyes was amazing when the food bank staff came to collect the donations.

While I have only given you a few examples, our students know that they are empowered to solve problems, and they take great pride in their abilities to affect change. We take pride in our student-centered environment, from planning Career Day to touring the Colorado House of Representatives to solving real-world problems in our community. I challenge all teachers to find ways to teach and nurture leadership skills from an early age. We know that our 21st century learners will be expected to be the next problem solvers, and create innovations that do not yet exist. By jump starting these skills at an early age, our students will thrive in tomorrow’s world. Our MSLA students ARE “the change”,” and they positively impact the lives of others every day!

Kim Manning Ursetta is a National Board Certified Teacher, founding staff member at the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, and former President of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

  • JohnHolland

    The Language of Democracy

    I sincerely appreciated your bold font in the words is encouraged and are encouraged. I think many times when we approach the concept of teacher-powered schools it is just this shift from being “allowed” to exert influence and “encouraged” to exert influence on the taken for granted in our schools and our students’ lives. OUr schools are so focused on compliance vs empowerment that the possibilty of creating a formal structure to support student and teacher voice is almost impossible to imagine. This is also why a teacher-powered model is just the prescription for a more socially just society. Without the encouragement to have voice in our situation we are left a compliance mindset. Thank you for your post. 

  • akrafel

    We Can Always Try for More

    Thank you for this perspective. We are always searching for ways to empower students. It is so easy for teachers to just do things, plan things,get things organized. We are so used to doing it that we can forget to give things over to students. Being naturally bossy, I can slide into teacher centered thinking. Blogs like this and the Teacher Powered School Conference give me a healthy jolt of energy to give things over to students as often as possible, or even creating spaces for students that would have not seemed possible. Blogs like this stimulate me to think more deeply.  The middle school team I am on is actively looking at more ways to empower students.  One we have got going now is planning two trips and a group of students designing a 4 x 8 mural for the school wall that will help younger students learn to identify and appreciate the water birds common on the Sacramento River that runs through the middle of our town.  I appreciate being reminded that we can always do more and not to get complacent in our nitches. 

  • AmyJunge

    Modeling Leadership

    These are great examples Kim of how MSLA students are learning to be leaders. At teacher-powered schools students learn by watching their teachers collaboratively lead their schools. When teachers have autonomy to make collective decisions and model this process with their students, students benefit and learn real life skills. 

  • JustinMinkel


    Love this. I’m reminded of a teacher and a principal I know:

    Pennyslvania Teacher of the Year Mike Soskil had his students partner with students in Kenya via Skype. The Kenyan kids taught his students Kiswahili, and his students designed and raised money for water filters when they learned that many Kenyan students became sick (some even died) each year from drinking unclean water.

    Principal Adam Stumacher’s students in Dorchester, Boston, were broken and afraid by Trump’s election. They channeled their anger and fear into constructive engagement including a spoken word performance the night before Inauguration Day and asking tough questions of a state rep who visited their school and initially offered “bootstrap” platitudes. (Read his recent article here: They Have Suffered in This New World, but Still These Students Rise.) 

    True leadership, even by young students, disrupts. It disrupts complacency, compliance, and comfort. We need the disruption.

    • BeckyWatts


      I love your thoughts on disruption. I think that often, we get used to how things are and it becomes comfortable to stay as is. But it is so important to find those things we hold passionately to and shout it out to the world. By offering our words of wisdom and letting others know what our beliefs are, we show true leadership. I can not think of a time any of my elementary or secondary teachers offered me an opportunity like those above you have mentioned. How powerful it must be for young minds to see the ripple effect they create in the world and how amazing it must feel for them to be able to say, ” I did that.” Leadership is all about helping others, guiding them toward a path that is a best fit for everyone. As these students grow older, they will, no doubt, be much more confident in voicing their opinions and doing work to create positive social change. 

  • benowens

    A mode of excellence we should expect for every school

    What a wonderful school! What I love most is that the teacher-powered leaders at MSLA are obviously willing to challenge the paradigms of how a school is structured and what is expected from their students. How many schools are willing to enable students to be influential decision makers in how the school operates? What’s obvious in these examples is that when we give students higher expectations and responsibility, with the critical support they need, they will rise to the occasion and in most cases, exceed our pre-conceived expectations.

    To me, that’s the formula for success: (1) Rethink it! Challenge the models you have used in the past, whatever makes you comfortable, or the things that would lead someone to say “we can’t change that.” (2) Change it! Not with a “shoot from the hip” approach, but with intentional, informed change that challenges the status quo and sets new, higher expectations for yourself, your students, and your school. (3) Support it! If you are going to recalibrate your expectations you are also going to have to rethink the level of work you do to support that change. This is why some changes fail – we incorrectly assume it can be done with the same level of work as we have used in the past. No. Change is never easy. But then again, if we are about innovating for our students, we have to do the hard work to make that change happen.

    Reading the examples cited in this article reinforced this formula for success. What MSLA is doing is challenging school models of the past, implementing changes that raise expectations and empower their students, and then providing an intense level of support to allow students to take risks and grow at a level that could not be obtained in more traditional approaches. What was also obvious to me is that by being a teacher-powered school, MSLA has the collaborative systems in place to foster and implement such innovations, as well as the structures to quickly review and nimbly respond to changes that are needed to continually improve. Is this not the type of school we should expect and demand for every student in this country? 


  • BeckyWatts

    Leadership At Its Finest

    I love reading stories like this! I am a Master’s student in Teacher Leadership. I have been reading all about how teachers can become powerful leaders and create change in their classrooms, schools, and districts without having to leave the classroom and become an administrator. I think it is so important for teachers to be leaders because we all know that students are watching everything we do! For this school to include students in so many decisions has clearly set up an amazing culture throughout the building and those students are gaining valuable skills they will use the rest of their lives! I think that sometimes, the hesitation with creating programs like this one come from the knowledge that it takes a lot of work up front! But, I’m sure that once the wheels are in motion, it is not hard to keep it going. I’d love to see something like this at my school!


  • JessicaKeigan

    The Power of Empowered Students

    I have had the pleasure of visiting MSLA a few times and on all occasions, I have been struck by the sense that it is a school where joy and learning are celebrated. I so appreciate your stories of how students are empowered to take ownership, not only of the school, but of their community within it. Thank you for the convicting reminder to turn back towards my own students to hear their voices, not only as learners, but as leaders. 

  • TriciaEbner

    Making it happen . . .

    The words “encouraged” and “empowered” are so strong. As I read this, I found myself hoping that tonight flies by so I can get back to my kids tomorrow with an ear and eye toward those leadership voices I hear, and foster and nurture those more. I think part of what keeps more schools from encouraging those leadership skills in students is fear of the “what if.” This leaves me with a question: How can we encourage and support those who are fearful of the “what if” to power past those worries? 

  • jazmin0528

    Lori Nazareno,
    I completely agree with you. It is very important to empower students. As teachers we have the opportunity to empowered students and when we empowered students they realize that they can make a positive change in society so they began to make a change. Empowering students does change the environment and climate of a school. Students began to make changes in school and that is positive. It is important for students to learned leaderships skills because that will help them in the future and it will help them make a positive change in society. Empowering students is very important. Great blog.

  • Winona16


    Hi everyone, I am currently a freshman in college who is majoring in education. With that being said we are reading the book The Connected Educator, and one of our assignments is to reply to a blog. I think what you wrote is a great idea. When teachers are able to teacher and show students leadership skills, they will begin to express those as well. I also like how you have the 15 minutes built into your schedule. That is really awesome! In a classroom of my own, I would like to add this and how to become a connected learner. 


  • MaryJoOlson

    Students are the Future

    I am so happy to hear about different ways to involve and empower students, and getting them started at such a young age!  I am a college student, just delving into online learning communities, specifically through our textbook, The Connected Educator-Learning and Leading in a Digital Age, authored by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall.  According to our text, “distributed leadership is not complete without students as leaders in the school community.”  I totally agree, and am excited about giving students a voice and helping them feel valued in the process of redesigning classrooms and learning practices.  Thank you for challenging us to find ways to empower our students!