What happens when you give students money to spend?

2/16/2018 | TACOMA, Washington

An unusual quiet fell over the Giaudrone Middle School commons. The only sound came from small clusters of students—members of the Team Ohana leadership group—waiting near seven poster board displays. Each one described a different student-driven proposal for improving the school.

Suddenly a gust of sixth graders blew into the room. Some of the 200 students paused to study the displays and ask Team Ohana members questions about the proposals. Moments later they were gone, leaving a what-the-heck-just-happened feeling hanging in the air.

Viewed from the outside it seemed like controlled chaos. In reality, the flurry of activity was a carefully planned exercise—repeated later in the week with seventh- and eighth-graders—designed to help Giaudrone students decide how to spend $25,000 the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department awarded to the school.

"Our biggest goal has been to stay out of the way," said Jacques Colon, health equity coordinator at the health department. "The kids are really excited to have control over something happening in their school."

Participatory budgeting

The health department received a $100,000 grant from the Public Health National Center for Innovations to fund student proposals at Giaudrone and Lincoln High School ($60,000) and parent-student proposals at Roosevelt Elementary School ($15,000) through a process known as participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting gives control to a group—such as students in a school or residents of a neighborhood—for how to spend money for a project.

The health department chose the three Tacoma schools because of their Eastside location—one of the health department's "Communities of F," because of the area's poor health outcomes and resources. The grants to Giaudrone, Lincoln and Roosevelt aim to teach students how to identify and solve problems in their school and community through brainstorming, planning, choosing and funding specific projects.

Research shows a strong link between civic engagement and the health of a community, Colon said. Empowering students to choose the best way to spend the health department grants—even if their proposals aren't always linked directly to health—is an early lesson in "taking ownership of the changes that need to happen in their communities in order for them to be healthy," Colon said.

From 200 ideas to seven proposals

After spending several days discussing ideas in their classrooms, Giaudrone students submitted approximately 200 proposals for improving their school to Team Ohana, which whittled the list to seven before presenting the proposals to each grade level.  

Back in the Commons, four members of Team Ohana, which means family in Hawaiian, were stationed at a poster board display depicting a proposed student break room called the Husky Lounge—named after the school's mascot.

"You know how the teachers have a lounge? The students should have one, too," said seventh-grader Jesse Cruz.

Some kids come to school all stressed out, explained seventh-grader Paytience Kamuta. "Maybe something happened at home with their parents or a loved one," she said. With support from peers and school staff, the Husky Lounge would be a space for students to talk through problems rather than "making a bad decision to skip school" or engage in other negative behavior, Paytience said.

Students could even hang out in the lounge after school and do homework, added Jesse.

After viewing the poster boards, Giaudrone students returned to their classrooms to vote for their favorite proposal. Sixth-grader Mya Straughter voted to form an anti-bullying club that would offer support to bullying targets and intervene with bulliers.

"When people are getting bullied, they feel like they're not worthy," Mya said. "They feel like there's no reason to live. And that's not a good thing."

And the winner is ...

When Team Ohana tallied votes from all three grade levels at the end of the week, the Husky Lounge got the greatest support, followed by flexible classroom seating. Other proposals included creating a school garden, painting walls and lockers and upgrading vending machines.

Team Ohana will remain involved as they flesh out plans for the Husky Lounge. Team Ohana consists of students enrolled in the same advisory period who have untapped leadership potential but struggle to find their place in school. Choosing them to lead the process gives a voice to a segment of the student body that doesn't always have a voice.

Student ownership in developing the Husky Lounge will make it that much more likely to succeed, said Shelby Wickett, a language arts teacher who leads the Team Ohana advisory period.

"They feel like this was their choice—and they don't get to choose a lot of things that happen to them at age 11 to 14," Wickett said.

Giaudrone is a step or two ahead of Lincoln and Roosevelt in identifying and voting on proposals, but all three schools are expected to roll out their projects by the end of the year.