Grassfield High School in Chesapeake, VA, is a large school. We have more than 2,200 students (who come from 10 different middle schools) and 215 staff spread out over multiple quads on a campus the covers more than 100 acres. One group that is key to pulling our entire school community together is our 30-person student council. That’s a lot of school for our student council to cover, but members do a wonderful job of reaching out to all of our student communities.

In fact, the council does such a wonderful job that it was recently recognized as a National Council of Excellence. The council, which math teacher Alicia White advises, is very intentional about things like showing up to lunches—we have four lunch periods—and getting on the PA system to promote school spirit events and organizing competitions. But the overarching goal that drives them is elevating student voice and finding ways to make sure all students’ views are heard.

One way we’ve done that is through a 145-person group made up of one representative from each of our home rooms. In the past, the student council would solicit ideas from the student body, but they never got much feedback. So, we decided to make it a formal body, and that’s worked well. This way, our council receives a lot more input, and ideas from so many students across grade levels and groups are represented.

I’ve been at the school for 10 years now, and even before me, going back to when the school opened 16 years ago, our student council has been recognized as a National Council of Excellence 15 times! That honor never gets old for our student council leaders. Each year, it seems like a higher bar of excellence has been set and there’s this positive peer pressure, like this group doesn’t want to be the one that breaks the streak. They’re always trying to outdo past councils and create new traditions, while embracing traditions that have been around since the school was established.

Our student council does so much for our school and our collective spirit. For example, members have almost a sixth sense about what might be needed to boost teacher morale. All of a sudden, they might be bombarding a classroom or office with notes about what a great job that staff member is doing. Likewise with students, they’ll put random sticky notes in the restrooms for students to find that say things like, “Hey, you look great today!” It just creates a positive vibe that students and staff notice when they see that others care about them and show that positive affirmation.

Mike Perez, principal of Grassfield High School, with students at Homecoming.

We have a saying here, “The Grizzly Way” (the Grizzly is our school mascot). It basically entails doing the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do. That might mean picking up trash, keeping your feet on the floor during class, holding the door for someone, or saying please and thank you. It just means being a good, kind person and supporting one another. And a lot of that grows out of the example our student council leaders set.

I think one key to having a successful student council is vision and support from the school leadership. Every now and then, members propose some things that are fun but also a little crazy and I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, this can’t end well.” For example, we had a day where students could bring their belongings to school in anything but a book bag. We had bicycle baskets, plastic tubs, kitchen sinks, and all kinds of stuff. But our leadership supported it because even though we might have been a bit leery, we knew that students would be safety-minded and responsible, so it was OK. And the students loved it. Sometimes you must step out of your comfort zone to increase student voice, so everyone feels connected and ensure that it’s not just one group or person making all the decisions.

I certainly give credit to Ms. White, our adviser and an amazing leader. She has a vision of school leadership where she really lets the students facilitate things and go with new ideas. Every year, she helps build the capacity of our student council so members can become even better leaders.

For more on National Student Council, visit https://www.natstuco.org/.