Reflections by Tina Nilsen-Hodges
Founder, Principal, & Superintendent

Student Council engages New Roots students in real-world democracy, empowering them to take action on issues that affect their lives at school and beyond!

About the New Roots Student Council

A truly representative body, our Student Council is not elected by the student body at large.  Rather, the Council is comprised of ten students who are elected represent each of our ten crew advisory groups.  Two upper school students who serve as facilitators.  Each representative is responsible for facilitating weekly meetings with their crews to hear their concerns and perspectives on schoolwide issues, as well as to report back about discussions in Student Council the previous week.  

As Principal and Superintendent, I serve as the advisor to Student Council to give our students direct access to decision-making power that can help them take effective action on issues of interest and concern.  This year’s facilitators are Julia Sumner, a junior, and Zach Stallman, a senior, both of whom served as crew representatives last year.  Our facilitators serve as student liaisons to our Board of Trustees, providing a direct line of communication between students and trustees.

A representative model of governance: history and present

The model we use for Student Council was developed in our first year in consultation with Kai Keane, then a senior at the Lehman Alternative Community School (LACS).  Kai and I wanted to design a meaningful model for student involvement in governance that was responsive to lessons learned at LACS, where the process of engaging all students became more challenging as the school grew in size.  The model we developed for New Roots involves each crew advisory group electing a representative to participate in Student Council, serving as a communications liaison between that body and their crew mates, and participating in making decisions delegated to the Council in consultation with their crews.  Crews meet weekly, so all students have an opportunity to raise issues of interest and concern and have them heard and acted on quickly.  We implemented this structure by the end of our first school year, but Student Council did not fully hit its stride until about five years later when we introduced a highly effective approach to cooperative decision-making and ironed out scheduling challenges.  

Dynamic governance: a highly effective democratic decision-making process  

Our big turning point occurred In November of 2015, when New Roots junior Noah Brown and I attended a weekend-long workshop at EcoVillage at Ithaca to learn an approach to democratic decision-making called dynamic governance, which is now used by Student Council as well as staff teams at New Roots.  Dynamic governance is a democratic process that operates on the principle of “consent,” as opposed to majority rule or consensus.  In dynamic governance, a proposal is adopted by a group when each member consents to it as “good enough for now, safe enough to try.”  If a member of the group does not feel that the proposal addresses the problem fully, they voice an objection that is then taken into consideration in evolving the proposal.  This process continues until all members of the group are ready to offer their consent.  Operating in rounds, the group hears all voices on each issue in an efficient and egalitarian manner, generally moving very quickly towards a decision that reflects the best thinking of all stakeholders.

Elections to ensure excellent representation

For the past two years, our Student Council representatives have been chosen using the dynamic governance election process.  The first step of the process is for the group to identify the qualities that they want to see in their elected representative.  The lists generated by crews at this stage of the process often includes qualities such as being a good listener, reliability, able to advocate for crew concerns, etc.  Crew members then nominate people in their crew based on these qualities.  The facilitator helps the group narrow down to one candidate that all consent to as representative for the semester-long term.   The experience is deeply validating for all students nominated, even if not elected, and reinforces that representation is about the role, not the personality.

 An effective process that builds community and mutual respect

It is truly amazing to see our Student Council at work using dynamic governance.  They have open, honest, candid conversations in rounds that progress quickly from problem to solution.  They find common ground and respectfully agree on an approach that all can consent to.  They offer valid reasons for their support or concerns that are based on the wellbeing of the group as a whole, staying open and responsive to the perspectives of others in the group.  Truly, if all elected bodies operated as well as the New Roots Student Council does, with the greater good always in mind, it would truly transform our public dialogue in a way that would create a sustainable future for all.

Student Council agendas in the 2017-2018 school year

Issues addressed by our Student Council in the first half of this school year have included integration of LEAP year students into our school community, the impacts of the proposed middle school on the student body, implications of the dress code, and how the Council should respond to code of conduct issues impacting its membership.  I look forward to the conversations ahead this semester, as our newly-elected Council members take office and begin the work anew!