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The Role of Intermediary Organizations in Sustaining Student Voice Initiatives

by Dana L. Mitra - 2009

Background/Context: The sustainability of change efforts continues to be an important and challenging question in educational research.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: By examining 13 programs aimed at increasing student voice in school reform, this article examines conditions that enable and constrain the sustainability of this challenging form of educational change.

Population/Participants/Subjects: The 13 high schools in this study all received grant funding from a local foundation in the San Francisco Bay Area to work on building a student voice initiative in their school. All the grant recipients and their schools in the sample were situated within an urban environment, either within an inner city or a bedroom community in the Bay Area that possessed urban characteristics of the region. These characteristics include an ethnically diverse population comprising students of Asian, Latin, African, and European descent, insufficiently funded public schools, and high concentrations of poverty.

Intervention/Program/Practice: When placed into practice, student voice initiatives provide youth with opportunities to participate in school decision-making that will shape their lives and the lives of their peers. Student voice can range from the most basic level of youth sharing their opinions of problems and potential solutions, to allowing young people to collaborate with adults to address the problems in their schools, to youth taking the lead on seeking change.

Research Design: This study consists of a multiple case study designed for the purpose of explanation building.

Data Collection and Analysis: Semistructured telephone interviews served as the primary data source for this article. Observations, documents, and external evaluations served as validity checks and sources of triangulation for this study.

Findings/Results: The data indicate that the persistence of a student-voice effort after the initial influx of funds and support disappeared requires support from an intermediary organization (IO)—an organization located outside the auspices of school walls. IOs can help with fostering a clear and long-term vision, providing a more stable source of leadership, identifying ongoing financial and collaborative resources, and building a network for knowledge generation and sharing.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Although they are a part of many reform initiatives, partnerships with IOs are usually considered to be short-term relationships during the implementation phase of an initiative. This research instead suggests that IOs might be better suited as long-term partners in many change efforts. An awareness of the important roles that IOs can play in the long-term work toward change could help researchers, practitioners, and policy makers think more intentionally about how to plan for stabilizing such partnerships as an avenue toward sustaining reform initiatives.

One of the greatest dilemmas of educational research concerns how to sustain promising practices. Even with indications of a successful innovation, maintaining that success over time can prove to an enormous challenge in schools. The definition of sustainability1 for the purposes of this article will focus on whether the reform continues beyond the initial infusion of resources and support (Coburn, 2003; Datnow, Hubbard, & Mehan, 2002; Taylor, 2005). Once an initial infusion of resources and support disappears, most often changes tend to dissipateand especially changes that affect the core of schooling, including what is taught, how it is taught, and who has a say in school decisions (Scott, 1995; Tyack & Cuban, 1995).

Knowledge of how to sustain educational practice is thin (Datnow, 2005). Indeed, most research tends to focus on how the intransigent nature of schools prevents sustaining educational change (Fullan, 2001; Tyack & Cuban, 1995). Rather than providing a definitive set of answers, the available research instead more effectively poses a series of dilemmas regarding the preservation and generation of knowledge, supportive structures, and collaborative practices.

Research indicates that sustaining educational change requires persistence of vision and leadership. Sustained efforts tend to have a person facilitating the change effort who is able to dedicate at least 50% of his or her time to the change (Louis & Miles, 1990; Moffett, 2000) and a clear system for communication and sharing formative feedback on the initiative (Adelman & Taylor, 2003; Berends, Bodilly, & Kirby, 2002; Florian, 2001; Moffett). Often innovative ideas are at greatest risk when this visionary leader leaves, however. Educational change therefore requires support from multiple levels, including the building and district levels, and from the broader community (Berends et al.; Coburn, 2003; Datnow et al., 2002; McLaughlin & Mitra, 2001). At each level of the system, reform initiatives require alliances for the change. These alliances can offer a critical mass of people who support the effort. They can also be powerful insiders who can leverage resources and priorities to help make the change happen (Anderson & Stiegelbauer, 1994; Datnow, 2005; Moffet, 2000).  

Growing research suggests that successful educational reforms instead are moving targets. Sustaining innovative change requires continuing the process of generating of innovative, collaborative knowledge that can improve classroom practice, school culture, and organizational structures (Brown & Duguid, 2000; Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1992; Nonaka, Toyama et al., 2001; Wood & Talbert, 2007). The dilemma exists, then, of how to continue to encourage knowledge generation beyond the initial investment of resources and energy (Coburn, 2003; McLaughlin & Mitra, 2001). Sustainability therefore requires structures that can support the ongoing development of ideas, buffer criticism, and build bridges with likeminded constituencies (Florian, 2001; Taylor, 2005; Yonezawa & Stringfield, 2000). Even in reforms with low resource needs, personnel need ongoing capacity building through professional development and other ways to both bring new ideas into a school and to transfer knowledge among members of the school community (Adelman & Taylor, 2003; Berends et al., 2002; Fisher, 2000; Florian). For example, the transfer of ideas with other schools doing similar work is important (Coburn, 2003; Cooper, Slavin, & Madden, 1997; Muncey & McQuillan, 1996), as is the need for coaches, mentors, and critical friendspeople who can provide an outside perspective on the tough work of change (Adelman & Taylor; Berends et al.; Fisher; Taylor).

In addition to knowledge generation, most change efforts also require the transfer the financial responsibility from initial funding support. While initial funding  often comes from an outside source, sustaining change usually necessitates ongoing assistance from within institutional walls (Coburn, 2003; McLaughlin & Mitra, 2001). To accomplish this shift, districts must increase funding and technical assistance to replace the supports of outside funders. With most districts cash-strapped and pulled in multiple directions, perhaps it is not surprising that resource-hungry reforms tend to fail when resources run dry (Datnow, Hubbard, & Mehan, 2002).


Given these dilemmas of vision, knowledge generation, and funding, much more research is needed examining conditions that can enable and constrain the sustainability of innovative change. To examine issues of sustainability more deeply, this article examines efforts to sustain student voice initiatives. When placed into practice, student voice initiatives provide youth with opportunities to participate in school decision making that will shape their lives and the lives of their peers (Fielding, 2001; Levin, 2000; Mitra, 2007). Student voice can range from the most basic level of youth sharing their opinions of problems and potential solutions, to allowing young people to collaborate with adults to address the problems in their schools, to youth taking the lead on seeking change (Mitra, 2005). All types of student voice, from limited input to substantial leadership, are considerably different from the types of roles that students typically perform in schools (such as planning school dances and holding pep rallies). Student voice efforts also can raise equity issues that tend to be avoided, such as the problem of blaming failing students for not succeeding in schools, and not examining structural and cultural injustices within schools (Fine, Torre, Burns, & Payne, 2007; McQuillan, 2005; Mitra, 2001).

Student voice initiatives have served as catalysts for educational change, including improvements in classroom practice made directly by teachers working with students to cocreate curriculum and to engage in dialogues about ways to shape the learning occurring in the classroom (Flutter & Rudduck, 2004; Goldman & Newman, 1998; Lodge, 2005; Rudduck & Demetriou, 2003). Youth participation in faculty meetings even can change the tenor of conversations, including reducing unprofessional behaviors such as completing crossword puzzles during staff meetings or openly showing hostility to colleagues (Mitra, 2003). Student voice initiatives have improved curriculum and assessment development, such as by students offering instant feedback during staff development sessions (Fielding, 2001; Rudduck & Flutter, 2000). They also have strengthened teacherstudent relations (Bragg, 2007; Shultz & Cook-Sather, 2001), such as by having students take teachers on tours of their neighborhoods (Mitra, 2004). Student voice initiatives additionally have improved teacher training (Donohue, Bower, & Rosenberg, 2003; Youens & Hall, 2006), such as by having students take active teaching roles in collaborative projects with prospective teachers (Cook-Sather, 2006). Finally, and perhaps most important, youth-adult partnerships have also improved positive youth development outcomes. By providing youth with opportunities to participate in school decision making that will shape their lives and the lives of their peers, increasing student voice in schools offers a way to reengage students in the school community, increase youth attachment to schools (Mitra, 2004), and increase the civic engagement of youth, including the belief that young people can make a difference in their lives and the lives of others (Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Kirshner, ODonoghue, & McLaughlin, 2003; Mitra, 2004).2

Despite the potential benefits of student voice efforts, sustaining these initiatives has been challenging. Creating authentic student voice initiatives consists of developing working conditions that define new norms, relationships, and organizational structures that can create youth-adult partnerships rather than hierarchies (Della Porta & Diani, 1999; Oakes & Lipton, 2002). Such initiatives challenge institutional notions of professionalism and power in schools (McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly, 1996; Moore 1999). This article examines the conditions that can enable the sustainability of student voice initiativesa challenging form of educational change after the initial influx of funding and technical assistance disappears.



The present article derives from a second, larger study designed to examine a broader sample of youth-adult partnerships in the San Francisco Bay Area. The present study consists of a multiple case study designed for the purpose of explanation building (Yin, 1994). It examines whether the initial findings of the embedded case study can be identified in further iterations of youth-adult partnerships cases. The goal of this research sample has been to identify sites that have demonstrated commitment to fostering youth-adult partnerships rather than to find schools with a range of commitment student voice efforts (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The present study builds on the findings from a 3-year embedded case study of two youth-adult partnerships in a large comprehensive high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, which included an examination of the processes and outcomes of developing student voice initiatives (Mitra 2003, 2008).

The 13 high schools in this study all received grant funding from a local foundation in the San Francisco Bay Area to work on building a student voice initiative in their school. Schools had to apply for the funds, and seed grants of $5,000 were awarded to schools demonstrating a degree of youth involvement in the proposed plan and sufficient capacity to complete their proposed projects. The staff of the foundation worked closely with potential applicants to learn more about both the goals and process of the groups. The groups were selected because they were identified as capable of engaging in a youth-adult partnership, although they ranged in terms of strength of partnership, with varied levels of institutional support, past experiences, and scope of plans (Mitra, 2006).3

All the grant recipients and their schools in the sample were situated within an urban environmenteither within an inner city or a bedroom community in the Bay Area that possessed urban characteristics of the region, including an ethnically diverse population comprising students of Asian, Latin, African, and European descent, insufficiently funded public schools, and high concentrations of poverty. All but three of the schools were very large2,000 students or more; of the remaining three schools, one was a charter school and two were last chance schools offering students an opportunity to finish their degree after they had been expelled or otherwise removed from traditional district schools. Although the student voice initiatives in these schools ranged in size from only 3 youth to over 50, all groups had a core of 38 youth who served as the leadership of the group; the remaining students served more peripheral roles. Each group was supervised by one or two adult advisors. Table 1 provides a description of the groups missions and projects, which range from efforts to create changes in school climate and policy, to efforts to improve individual student experiences. All names in this study have been changed.

Table 1. Description of the sample

School/Group Name

Reform Goals

Examples of Specific Projects

College Center: Unity Council

Fostering dialogue across racial groups

Created a Unity Council that would include representation from all ethnic groups on campus

Great Valley: End the Stereotypes

Reducing bullying

Built a peace park honoring students who serve as peacemakers

High Hills: Pacific Club

Improving self-esteem of Polynesian youth

Created a large mural reflecting Polynesian history and their roles in that community

Highland: Business Enterprise

Fostering business skills among disadvantaged youth

Sold school lunches made by local restaurants; participated in international business competitions; provided income tax assistance for the elderly; sold student-designed business cards

Hillside: Unity of Youth

Tempering racial tensions and addressing inequities

Developed a center for providing social services and tutoring assistance, protested school exit exams; improved bathroom conditions

Hoover: GayStraight Alliance

Increasing tolerance of LGBT issues

Designed a video of youth experiences with intolerance; held an annual day of silence

King: Youth Voice Initiative

Gathering student input for school change

Fostered youth-driven dialogues on their concerns and a subsequent focus on developing more course electives

Latin: Peer Support

Providing peer helping and support

Created conflict mediation and peer tutoring programs; developed peer workshops on suicide, body image, and racism

McGuire: Peer Mentoring

Reducing expulsions

Developed a peer-to-peer conflict resolution program

Midland: Campaigns for Justice

Improving venues for youth voice at the district and school levels

Fought for substantive student representation on the district school board

Morgan: Peer Support

Sharing youth experience and addressing inequity

Prepared a book describing youth experiences through poems and essays; provided peer education about youth rights

Sierra: Youth Taking Charge

Sharing the experiences and structural inequities of their community

Designed a video of injustices in their disadvantaged community, including a lack of grocery stores, an abundance of liquor stores, rampant drug dealing, and domestic violence

Whitman: Student Forum

Improving teacher-student collaboration

Critiqued textbooks for the district adoption process; took teachers on tours of their community; participated in professional development sessions



Semistructured telephone interviews served as the primary data source for this article. Reliability of the data was increased for all the interviews by systematically seeking perspectives of both youth and adult advisors in each group. Interviews4 were conducted individually with at least three youth and all adults participating in the group (one to three) from each group5 (see Appendix A for specific numbers of interviews by case and by rounds of interviews). When conducting semi-structured interviews, the intent was not to follow strictly a pre-determined protocol, but instead to allow the interviewees to tell their story in manner that could best describe their group experiences. Reference to the protocol (see Appendix B for protocol from first round of data collection6) ensured that all the questions were discussed by the end of the interview, if not in the same order.

The interviews were conducted two times as a part of the formal studyonce within the first few months of receiving their grant funding, and again a few months after the grant funding ended. For the purposes of this article, all the groups then were contacted one last time 3 years after their grant funding ended to identify which groups were still in existence, and the nature of their ongoing work (or the reason why the groups had ended). This final interview also served as an opportunity to share preliminary findings with group members to receive feedback on validity of the findings.

In addition to interviews, a small number of in-depth observations7 of mandatory meetings were conducted. These meetings brought potential grant recipients together to share information about the grant process . The meetings also served as intensive training sessions for the groups. Subsequent meetings for funded groups encouraged the schools to share their successes and struggles with each other in order to foster collaborative communication among the grantees. Meeting structure included small-group discussions and collective brain storming on how to improve the work of all of the groups. Observations of all of the 13 groups were conducted (the groups were in two cohorts, so the meetings hosted 6-7 groups at a time). As a validity check, the author worked in partnership with a co-researcher to compare and contrast field notes and group impressions of the observational sessions with the interview data.

In addition to interviews and observations, data collection included gathering relevant group documents of media coverage, internal publications, and pages from group and school Web sites. The researcher also gathered documentation on the evaluation efforts of the non-profit funder, who conducted entry and exit interviews with each group. These evaluations were included in the data analysis of this study as a triangulation of the findings conducted by the researcher. The researcher also consulted with the evaluators on perceptions of group activities and with a smaller representation of the interviewees8 as an additional validity check of hypotheses.


Previous publications have focused on the implementation of the work of the student voice initiatives in this study (Mitra, 2006, 2008). The data analysis for this article focuses on the question of examining conditions that enabled and constrained the sustainability of the student voice initiatives in this study. The coding structure for identifying these conditions was developed using a grounded theory approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990), which is a qualitative methodology that is useful for developing theory derived from systematically gathered and analyzed data. Although the design of qualitative research is necessarily emergent (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), the grounded theory method provides a process for synthesizing data and creating a set of criteria against which to evaluate results. Moving from raw data to conclusions consisted of  a process of data reduction that involved breaking down data, conceptualizing them, and putting them back together in thematic categories that best fit the text  from interview, observation, and document sources (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The data reduction process had three steps: open coding, axial coding, and selective coding (Strauss & Corbin).

The analysis began with open coding to examine the ways in which participants articulated the process and intentions of the student voice initiatives, the aspects of their work that they viewed as important to their successes and struggles, and the reasons given for the continuation and dissolution of their endeavors. Based on themes emerging from the data and from the authors previous research on student voice, the main open coding bins for this study included conceptions of their work (of student voice initiatives overall and their specific project), components of their change strategy (vision, actions taken, and alliances formed), group process (including youth and adult roles), local contextual issues (background on youth, adult, school, and community), and outcomes (for youth, adults, and the school). Reading through the data allowed for the development of new codes emerging from the data, including program trajectory (plans to continue, expand, or end their work). This process was exhausted when saturation was achieved; that is, it continued until no new categories emerged and no further variations within categories could be determined.

Next, a process of axial coding defined the relational nature of open-coding categories by identifying their common and distinct properties and dimensions (Becker, 1998). Analyses for this article included examining the salient qualities of the groups that continued their work as compared with the groups that did not. In alignment with the definition of sustainability used for this research, the data were split into two groupsthose that continued the work of the new program that was funded 3 years after receiving funding, and those that did not. Although the programs had varying program histories prior to participating in the funding program discussed in this study, the specific examination of the student voice initiatives ability to continue their new projects helped to control for the variability in program history.9

The software program NVivo helped with axial coding by improving the ability to create displays and sets of quotations according to the original open coding categories. The two groups were compared based on the open coding bins (process, vision, and so on) to see if contrasting themes developed between student voice initiatives that continued and those that/which did not. Those comparisons offered some indications of conditions that enabled and constrained the sustainability of student voice initiatives.

Selective coding then involved identifying the central theme around which the assumptions fit. Although each school naturally faced unique institutional and community contexts, one theme kept emerging through the coding processa strong partnership with an intermediary organization positioned outside the school walls, which is discussed in the findings. Table 2 was derived from this analysis process as an explanatory framework (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Strauss & Corbin, 1990) for how the partnership with the intermediary organization helped to enable sustainability. Through case analysis and data displays that organized and compressed information for the purpose of drawing conclusions (Miles & Huberman), themes of vision, resources, and leadership emerged as reasons why such a partnership seemed to be helpful. Matrices compared which conditions appeared to have the greatest influence on group sustainability.

Many reasons for the sustainability of the groups were considered based on inductive reasoning as a result of themes from within the data. The selection of the themes undergirding the discussion sectionvision, leadership, funding, and knowledge generationproved to be the predominant themes emerging from the data (summarized in Table 3 in the Discussion section). Identification of these concepts consisted of going back to the data to search for supporting and contradictory evidence to support or refute these claims, which produced additional and alternative themes.10

The next step of the analysis process consisted of conducting literature reviews of conditions enabling sustainability and the roles of intermediary organizations. The literature on sustainability was not examined until after the data analysis was completed so that it would not bias the interpretation of the data. Comparing categories showed strong alignment between the literature and the data. Moving back and forth between the data from this study and the literature helped to clarify the description of the explanatory framework and the implications of the study.


Three years after receiving seed grant funding, only 6 of the 13 student voice initiatives were still in existence and continuing with their projects. A noticeable common thread among sustainable student voice initiatives was a strong affiliation with an intermediary organization (IO) positioned outside the school systemusually a nonprofit focused on youth activism and community justice issues. An examination of the relationship between IOs and sustainability is significant because it has not been identified previously as a key contributor to the persistence of change efforts. Table 2 provides a summary of group sustainability and affiliation with an IO. In this research, all the groups that sustained their work had an affiliation with an IO. Only three out of the seven student voice initiatives that did not sustain themselves had a strong affiliation with an IO. The data in this study suggest that IOs could provide the structure needed for sustainability to be possible in youth-adult partnerships.

Table 2. Sustainability of group and group affiliation with intermediary organization

click to enlarge

1 The funder mentioned a connection between High Hills and an IO, but none of the interviewees described this organization as affecting the work of the project. The IO did not provide any staffing or funding, nor did it have any observed influence on the project.

Recent research has just begun to point to the role of IOs in supporting educational change efforts, including serving as bridges for sharing knowledge and resources between organizations (Honig, 2004). Previous research has indicated that sustaining educational change can be supported by the development of structures that can support knowledge generation (Coburn, 2003; Florian 2001; Louis & Miles, 1990; McLaughlin & Mitra, 2001; Taylor 2005; Yonezawa & Stringfield 2000).Researchers of educational change also have emphasized similar concepts of outside organizations providing important information and bridging communication between schools and with other organizations. These descriptions include nonsystem actors who promote and translate reform ideas between teachers and administrators (Coburn, 2005), design teams that plan and implement comprehensive school reform (CSR) efforts (Datnow, Lasky, Stringfield, & Teddlie, 2005), support providers who serve as conduits for knowledge resources as schools engage in data-driven school reform efforts, literacy coaches who work with individual teachers on teaching reading and writing (Cohen, Raudenbush, & Ball, 2000; Elmore & Burney, 1997; Stein & DAmico, 1998), and reform coaches who work to build schoolwide competencies focused on data-driven decision making and planning for schoolwide change (Coggins, 2004; Neufeld & Roper, 2003). Similarly in the business world, executive coaching has been found to affect vision by refining and clarifying goals (Senge et al., 1999) and to improve leadership by encouraging a more distributed sense of decision making (Mezias & Glynn, 1993; Senge et al., 1999).

Although all the above terms tend to focus on sharing and encouraging knowledge generation, some distinctions exist between IOs and these other concepts. Most often, coaches and other nonsystem actors serve as initial support mechanisms rather than ongoing resources. Although previous research has examined the need to transfer reform responsibility from outside funders to within school and district walls, the role of IOs in this discussion is viewed in terms of long-term collaborative arrangements. One important reason that IOs can remain involved for the long term is that their funding base is shared between district fees and independent funding streams to support (at least partially) their involvement in the reform effort. Coaches, design teams, and support providers instead tend to be paid by the district for their services.

Given the importance of IOs to the groups in this research, we wanted to explore why they seemed to help ensure sustainability of the groups. As Table 2 indicated, all of the sustained groups did affiliate with IOs; three other groups also partnered with an IO but did not succeed. Thus, the nature of the collaboration appeared important as well. The contexts that enabled and constrained IO support of student voice initiatives were identified through inductive data analysis of searching for emerging case themes and by returning to the literature on educational change and sustainability. We explore these issues by examining the quadrants in  Table 2. The next sections provide  a case study for each quadrant provides an in-depth description of the roles of IOs within the work of the youth-adult partnerships and represents the overall themes of the quadrant. The discussion then synthesizes what has been learned about themes across the cases.


The groups that were able to sustain their effortsHillside, Highland, Hoover, Latin, Morgan, and Sierrapossessed strong and clear visions of their work, ongoing funding streams, and stable leadership. Although one of the groups, Sierra, benefited from the long-term presence of a visionary leader committed to staying with the organization, the rest of the sustained groups (four of them) possessed a strong organizational structure that spread responsibilities across individuals. The case of Highlands Business Enterprise highlights some of the successes and challenges of a stable and successful IO-school partnership.

With over 3,000 students, Highlands High School is an extremely diverse, struggling comprehensive high school. According to one student in Business Enterprise, Our area is known for the riots . . . A lot of people perceive it as a really bad neighborhood or at least kind of like not the best to live in. Over half of students at this urban school drop out before the 12th grade, and very few go on to college.

A partnership between Highlandss business teachers and a nonprofit called Worldwide Entrepreneurship (WE) sparked the development of the Business Enterprise group. The Highlands teacher had worked with youth to start a student-run business. According to one youth member, Maria, the original business teacher at Highlands was a great help. She was the one who helped us begin from scratch even before WE came in and started helping us out. Yet, according to the WE director, the business teachers started the group without a business plan. They didnt have you know any solid core elements of the program. They were doing it fly by the seat of their pants, but doing a pretty good job of it.

WE helped to provide technical skills so that youth could move forward with their projects, beginning with a business plan. WEs work with Highlands fit with their broader mission focused on teaching socially responsible business skills to youth in developing countries, and distressed neighborhoods in the United States. A youth member, Monica, explained, They teach you . . . how to be an entrepreneur, markets, about personal finance, project managementincluding needs assessment, objectives, action plans, outcomes and reflection. The WE director added, We have the students brainstorm about their community. Group president and senior at the school, Nadine, explained, All of our projects are based on needespecially in our community which needs a lot of things. Each project shows our understanding of community service, and why free markets work in a global economy.


After beginning to receive training using WE curriculum and technical assistance, Business Enterprise developed its first projectthe creation of a business that brought locally owned restaurants and vendors into the school to sell healthier and more appetizing food. Nadine explained that they run a free lunch [program]. Its a completely student-run business. We sell lunch because our mission is to provide food alternatives to on-campus meals while supporting local businesses. In the school year 20002001 we had a 72% truancy rate. We have an open campus during lunch but people werent coming back [after lunch].

After a month of working on their project, the Business Enterprise group submitted their business plan to a youth international business competition. The group brought 40 students with them to the competition at a state university about 4 hours away from the inner-city school. Many students had never seen a college campus before. Business Enterprise won the national competition and then went on to win the international competition in Mexico the following summer. The advisor reflected on the change in the youth themselves, from January, when they started their work, to the end of March, when they won the national competition, by commenting, Once they won the competition, there was this sparkI know thats a clichébut they became empowered and thrilled and felt so good about themselves. Following their success, the group also had several news stations and newspapers write stories about their work. This positive publicity provided an enormous source of legitimacy to the group and helped to encourage school officials to ensure that the group would have continued success in the future.


While most youth-adult partnerships tend to have one or two adult advisors working with youth, Business Enterprise included five adultstwo adults from WE, two Highlands teachers, and a Highlands guidance counselor working with 20 youth. According to the director of WE, I knew what every kid was doing. I knew where they were going to college. I knew who their brothers and sisters were. Because I could. Whereas when I was an English teacher, the only way I knew all of that was through their writing.

When the teacher serving as the advisor of Business Enterprise left to return to graduate school, the executive director of the local WE chapter assumed full advising responsibilities for the group. As part of the transition, she found support from a local foundation to provide student stipends and to fund her salary. During this next year, the group continued with their lunch program and also started a program that provided volunteer income tax assistance to the elderly and other struggling individuals in the community. Student leader Nadine explained,

Its a volunteer income tax assistance program where we partnered up with the IRS. They gave us curriculum to learn how to file 1040s, 1040A and 1040EZ. . . .  And then we were testeda two-part exam in order to qualify to be a tax counselor. And 15 of us passed it. . . . Because I speak Spanish, I serve . . . as a bilingual tax counselor. I think we served more than 30 people for their taxes. They were all low income. A lot of them were elderly or people who dont speak English.

The group was so successful that a local newspaper ran a story on the income tax assistance program praising the work of Business Enterprise. To develop this project, Business Enterprise identified another Highlands business teacher who could train students on how to file taxes as a part of a business course in the school. The students also wrote their own grant to pay young people a $100 stipend to provide the service on Saturdays in a local library.

The local director of WE worked closely with the Highlands group and highlighted many of the ways that an IO can provide support and act in ways that a teacher or school administrator cannot. She explained,

I think that when you are a teacher of a school you have a very closed view of the school. . . . You dont see the whole picture of the district and the administration and you havent been making these partnerships with these people. I also dont think that Im a threat to them as a teacher might be. . . . They can tell me anything that they want to. And Im not putting a grade on their head.


In addition to strong leadership from the IO, Business Enterprise also created a strong structure for youth leadership within the program. An adult advisor from WE explained, Our program is all about giving responsibility to the kids. It was Tias responsibility to do the grant making, you know, it was Ashleys responsibility to do the newsletter, and Nadine and Veronicas responsibility to hold our meetings. It was really student run. Because the group depended on student leadership, it planned carefully for turnover in students, including paying the groups president a $1,000 stipend each year. Often such funds are important, especially in disadvantaged areas, in allowing young people to focus their efforts on the student voice initiative rather than having to find a part-time job as well to contribute to their family.

The group paid careful attention to recruitment and succession planning. Student leader Tia explained, At the beginning of the school year we had a recruitment team. We try to get our name out there as much as we can. The group also planned for transfer of youth leaders of the program. For example, the Business Enterprises youth president Nadine felt that she was prepared for her role because of her previous group experiences. She explained, Last year I got a lot of preparation for it . . . I was the financial team leader . . . I was always around last year; I was always seeing what the executive director last year was doing. Tia became president the following year and had already begun thinking about her successor. She explained, The people I have in mind, theyre strong already. I look at them in our meetings. I see . . . the same kind of passion that I had. I see the strength that they possess, and I can tell that theyre capable of being very effective leaders.


Financially, the district contracted to pay for half of the funds for the program, and the WE provided the other half. However, the local WE director lamented, We never got paid for that program because of the budget cuts and all those different things. I think a check is going to be written to us 2 years laterI thinkIm crossing my fingers. WE also secured funding from two local foundations that supported the work of the organization over 3 years, and the WE director continued to pursue grants to keep the work of Business Enterprise and the overall work of WE stable and successful.


The schools that ended their student voice work did not have an IO affilation. All these groups were championed by an enthusiastic leader, and in all cases, when the leader left, the youth-adult partnership ended. Whitman and McGuire were led by enthusiastic teachers who left their schools, High Hills was led by a dedicated parent, and College Center was spearheaded by an energetic student who eventually graduated. In all cases, a turnover of ownership of the organization did not occur. The Whitman case, described below, offers an example in which succession planning was attempted. It was unsuccessful, however, due a combination of a decline in district funding for the youth-adult partnership and a frustrated new advisor who did experience previous group successes.


Whitman High School easily had been considered a trailblazer for student involvement in the San Francisco Bay Area.11 The group, Student Forum, began at Whitman when fourth-year English teacher Amy Jackson selected Whitman students to participate in focus groups on how to improve the academic success of ninth graders. Amy assembled a cross-section of the student population for the focus groups based on race, gender, academic performance, and clique. Eventually a group of 30 students (with 13 consistently participating) constituted Student Forum.

Student Forum gained regionwide acclaim for their work that focused on building communication and partnership schoolwide between students and teachers (Mitra, 2003). In teacher-focused activities, students joined in the schools reform work, including serving as experts on their classroom experience by providing teachers with feedback on how students might receive new pedagogical strategies and by sharing their own classroom experiences, both positive and negative. In the words of one teacher at the professional development session, A lot of staff remarked [about] how you get a very insightful perspective with a student at the table. You dont have to second-guess what they would think. It focused [us] on the reason were here. . . . People find it refreshing.

Student Forums student-focused activities were intended to help teachers gain a better understanding of student perspectives. Overall, they helped to reduce tension between teachers and students, to increase informality, and to help teachers and students identify one another as persons rather than as stereotypes. In one initiative, the group sought to address the schools reputationa pressing concern raised by students during the first days of the focus groups. Student Forum member Joey Sampson explained, Our reputation is that were perceived as a ghetto school. So its like, where does that come from? We wanted to deal with that directly. The group learned that students used the term ghetto as a source of identification and pride among their peers but viewed it as a derogatory term when used by people who did not live in their neighborhood. Other students and teachers viewed the term as a state of mind that lowered expectations for themselves and for others.

The group received an amplified boost when they shared their experiences at a conference hosted by their funder. The purpose of the conference was to encourage the sharing of ideas across school sites. The presentation amplified the work of the group on many levels. The positive reaction of the conference participants validated the students sense that they were engaging in something important. The presentation helped to build students collective identity. Donald Goodwin, a popular African American junior who exuded charisma, explained the value of the conference presentation. He stated, [the audience needed to] know [about our concerns] in a respectful manner without raising our voice, getting upset and other ways that people have tried to do in the past, which have gone nowhere. When I was talking to those teachers [at the conference], you could just see those eyes of people who just wanted to know what we were thinking. That felt so powerful. Donald was an articulate, passionate student who did not have many opportunities in his life to have his self-worth reinforced. His mother was a drug addict, and many of his relatives were in jail. The conference presentation provided an opportunity for Donald and his peers to hear that people valued his perspectives.


The adult advisor at Whitmanan English teacher named Amy Jacksonwas a strong advisor throughout this successful time. The group had managed to create a haven of trust and collaboration within a school whose culture bred disrespect, and even violence. A focus group of student leaders explained this shift in Amys role:

JOEY: Before [Ms. Jackson] had to do all the work. . . . And now we have taken over . . . not really taken over, but assumed the role similar to hers. And then, like, shes backed off a little bit more.

ROSALINDA: Because shes seen us grow and knows that we are dependable.

LANA: That we can handle it.

Amy attributed part of her success as an adult advisor to the financial support that she herself received. She needed someone to provide to her what she provided to the studentspassion, trust, and a belief in their abilities. Sean Martin, the schools reform leader who was funded by an external reform grant, provided this support to Amy in many ways. He provided a source of support to Amy, listening to her concerns, serving as a sounding board for ideas, and helping to advise the group when he could. Sean explained, What Ive been trying to do is make sure Im there every day . . . trying to be a buffer, but also to try to really help so that she doesnt just get totally frustrated. Sean also had important access to small pots of money that Student Forum could use to continue its work. Amy explained, If I had to worry about money . . . and the future of the program, it would fall apart. . . . It is crucial [to have] someone to do the politics and someone else in the trenches.


When Jackson took a new position at a local university, she looked carefully for a successor who could help to ensure the success of the group. Amy recruited Kelly Lamper, an enthusiastic third-year teacher committed to youth voice. This new teacher struggled to maintain the format established by Amy. Just as Amy was leaving, however, the district insisted on a shift in enrollment for the group because of budget concerns. Under Amys tenure, the course had been structured as an independent study of eight students. The ending of the schools outside grant and the inability (or at least lack of interest) of the district to absorb the cost of the program prevented special permission from being granted for such a small enrollment to continue. The following year, the class size jumped from 8 students to 30, and the sense of community among the group was destroyed.

Julio Garcia, a youth who participated in both course formats, expressed frustration with the new class arrangement. He found that making decisions among 30 students and the adult advisor was very challenging because consensus could not be reached. He commented, [Student Forum needed to] implement a democratic system so we could vote on decisions that could alter the class. Yet even this plan did not come to fruition, and when votes did occur, the opposing students did not feel that their voice had been heard. Although the previous smaller group format allowed for a more informal process of decision making in which all voices could be heard in a deliberation, the large number of students made it much more challenging for all young people to share their opinions. In the new, larger environment, Garcia reflected, I dont have any power. Mrs. Lamper has the ultimate say, and sometimes what she wants you to know is how it has to be. The marked difference in the two groups, which the young person attributed to the size of the groups, dramatically affected the ability of students to voice their opinions.

Despite valiant efforts, Kelly was unable to preserve or create the climate of trust and focus in the large class that Amy created during her tenure. As a result, the teacher and the students felt very frustrated with the process and outcomes of Student Forum. One student in the class reflected,

I didnt have issues with Ms. Jackson at all. Sometimes I do with Ms. Lamper, because sometimes I might think that [her decisions are] not a good thing for the class. But I feel that I cant like approach her and say, Thats wrong or . . . thats not how I would do it. . . . . She has the ultimate say and sometimes . . . its how it has to be. I dont think I have as much [input into the group] as I had when Ms. Jackson led the group.

Kelly agreed entirely with this students sentiments that she felt it was impossible in the climate of the group, as she entered it, to engage in a partnership with the youth in the group. A climate of distrust existed between student and teachers, and she was unable to bridge that chasm. When talking with Kelly about the larger class, she lamented,

We have 30 diverse personalities in one mix and not everyone is on the same page and some are quite immature. Its been one of the hardest things Ive ever done [teaching this class]. . . . When you bring 30 kids into that mix and get 5 of them to lead. They have that feeling that, If I take too much control then my peers wont like me and they won't approve of what Im doing and they wont respect me.

Kelly was very proud that by the end of the semester the group head learned to communicate their opinions without screaming at one another and to consider the view points of another by encouraging structured debates based on research-based evidence. Kelly described in written correspondence, As we progressed with debates, the students learned to listen to anothers viewpoint even if it conflicted with theirs, and to rebut with respect instead of anger. This was a major accomplishment.12 The coupling of the loss of a strong adult advisor with the increase in class size from 8 to 30 caused the successes of Student Forum to dissolve. Kelly chose not to offer the course the following year, and no other teacher volunteered to take it on.


All of the three cases that fit within the unsuccessful IO collaboration quadrant contained an imbalance in the partnership between IO and school. For King High School, the school administration viewed partnering with a national organization as an exercise for learning how to more effectively gather youth voice within the charter schools own vision of inclusion, rather than a full commitment to the goals of the national organization. In contrast, End the Stereotypes and Campaigns for Justice consisted of IOs that strategically worked with youth without establishing relationships with the schools themselves. End the Stereotypes stopped working at the school in this study when the IO shifted its focus from local Northern California initiatives to a nationwide reform strategy. The group had little time for the work happening with youth at Great Valley High School when it focused on building a network in all 50 states.


Campaigns for Justice (CFJ) began 6 years ago in a blue-collar bedroom community approximately 45 minutes from downtown San Francisco. CFJ worked with all the high schools in the Midland School district. According to CFJs Web site,

CFJ exists to develop youth leaders who realize their individual and collective power to organize and create unity for the good of all people. We will build a large, membership-based organization that works on campaigns for positive community change. We believe that oppression affects everyone; we dedicate ourselves to fighting it in all forms.

Campaigns included successful lobbying for the development of a skate park in town, blocking a city proposal for a daytime curfew for youth, informing students of their rights through the development of curriculum and written materials, and lobbying for the passage of increased district taxes for schools and for statewide fund increases.

CFJs last campaign, Student Voice Overboard, focused on increasing student representation on the school board and district planning committees. Although students had sat in on these decision-making bodies for several years, they had no vote and often were not sufficiently informed about the issues to provide input. According to a youth serving as a student representative on the school board,,

CFJ wanted to get the students to have trainings so we could comprehend what would go on in the meetings. Wed go to the board meetingsthe student repsand report on how their school is doing and different types of things. We would sit there for 2 hours or however long we had to wait until they reported. Students would vote on different issues that they would vote but our vote wouldnt count.

After engaging with their youth membership in a long process of identifying youth demands, CFJ developed three proposals for increasing student voice in the district: (1) increase and improve the effectiveness of training for student representatives; (2) improve the information process that lets all students know that they have student representatives; (3) allow students to introduce items on the agenda and put issues under discussion. After a long campaign, the school board agreed to the first two items but not the third. CFJ adult staff member, Carina, explained that instead of allowing students to make motions, the board did agree that they would walk students through the process of putting items on the agenda and bringing things through discussion and action items, but they cant make motions on them. The distinction, according to Carina, was a perception of power that the adults dont want to give up to the youth. The board also agreed to improve communication with student representatives. Instead of students receiving the agenda right before the meeting, Carina explained, Now they mail it to the student reps house. They also have a board mentor to call if they dont understand the agenda. The student representatives also received one-day training from the California Association of Student Councils about, according to Carina, student rights and youth rights, parliamentary procedure, learning how to conduct research, and learning how to interact with adults in a professional setting that affects all of them.

With 3 adult staff members and 4 paid youth organizers, the IO operated by youth choosing campaigns facilitated by adult staff and youth organizers. Im a youth organizer, explained Maria, a CFJ staff member. As much as us as being staff here as part of this organization, we want the members [youth volunteers from local high schools] to feel the same way towards the organization. We all have to deal with the different issues in our community cause the schools arent that far apart, and then build that relation with the schools.  

Carina similarly emphasized that the youth choose the campaigns, but she prepared the students to make these decisions. She stated,

Its not saying that our theory is to let youth make all the decisions. Its giving them the tools to make very conscious and critical decisions and setting them up to understand what it means to be a decision maker and the consequences that has. What I do is give them options to choose between. Because they work 10 hours a week, whereas I work 40. They dont have time to do the research. [But] were they to go ahead with resources and everything even against my recommendation, that would have been what happened.


Unlike successful IO partnerships, CFJ preferred to remain separate from schools. Carina explained, [The school district had] no jurisdiction over anything that we do, which is good. There are not as many restrictions on what we can do. . . . Like, were able to work with like teacher unions without legal hazards. In contrast, Carina mentioned another group in the study, Youth Taking Charge (a successful IO partnership), which had having restrictions on their work: Because a lot of their money comes from schools, there are restrictions on what they can work on. None of that applies to us.

Instead of partnering with students by establishing relationships within a school, CFJ recruited students from all the high schools in the district to come to the meetings. A youth organizer, Martina, explained that the next meeting she was attending was how to Be safe, including healthy sex, healthy relationships. In addition to these internal meetings both CFJ youth and adult staff also received additional training from a broader network of youth activism organizations in the region. Carina explained, We have a lot of people do trainings for [the youth staffers]. They get to know the other organizations, so . . . they also know that were not the only ones [who work on youth issues]. She went on to list four organizations in particular that CFJ worked with on a regular basis. Additionally, adult staffer Janina explained the training that the adult staffers experienced. She said, Our sister organization does a lot of curriculum and training, and we were part of something called Organizing 101, which was specifically around base building. . . . And there is going to be a youth organizing exchange retreat.

Despite not wanting a formal relationship with schools, CFJ faced sustainability problems as a result of this decision. They had to rely on the 4 part-time youth organizers to recruit other members and to network with teachers to be allowed to make announcements in class about CFJ activities. Janina explained that relying on youth to do the recruiting has advantages and disadvantages: The advantage is that its peer recruitment, but we have to train them. The disadvantage is that it depends on how strong your youth organizer is. Its never like a consistent thing.

The lack of school partnerships also prevented CFJ staff from building relationships directly with teachers to help to organize youth. Because of high staff turnover at CFJ, the staff had to rebuild relationships with school officials. According to adult staffer Janina, it is a process that has to be learned over and over. The lack of school alliances was coupled with the previous IO leadership, increasing alienation among school administrators. According to adult staff member Carina, Because the nature of the work included walkouts, there has been a contentious relationship with administrators and principals that have been here for a longer amount of time. Although the staff had a 100% turnover at CFJ and there was high turnover in the district, administrators still remember the tensions. Carina explained, Theres still some negative residue. . . . So a lot of our work is doing clean-up. . . . Were rebuilding relationships and relegitimizing CFJ in the eyes of the city.


Despite strong campaigns and a growing sense of leadership and vision among adult and youth staff, issues of funding and leadership contributed to the demise of CFJ. During our last conversation with a youth staff member of CFJ, she was unable to think forward for the organizational plans for the year. She explained, With the budget cuts it doesnt look like we have a very high chance of being open for very long. Im told that it will only last for maybe 6 more months. So we dont have like a definite set of money for us. By the time we collected our last round of data 3 years after the study began, the organization had closed down.

Funding was scarce for many youth organizations in this research. Originally, CFJ received support from national foundations. A CFJ staffer explained at the beginning of our data collection process, Because of how the economy is right now, we are having some difficulties with our huge sponsors. We are struggling. The struggle for funding affected the vision of CFJ, which wanted, according to adult staff member Janina, to focus more on leadership development. Janina continued, There was no way we were going to have a successful campaign without youth to drive it. But the lack of funding caused the organization to feel pressured to focus more on outcomes from the campaigns rather than on the process of youth development within the campaigns. Janina explained,

Ideally what were shooting for is that the leadership development is so ingrained in how the organization works that it will become a self-perpetuating cycle based on the values and the mission of the organization. [However], at this point were prioritizing campaign work. We need the campaign to get the funding. . . . Whats hard about youth leadership development is that its very hard to measure and funders like to measure stuff. [But] a campaign, if its planned, will have tangible outcomes.

After CFJ closed its doors, its website displayed the message,, Despite a spike in membership, CFJs long fight for education reforms and improved services for young people in suburban and conservative Midland had to shut its doors because of jarring changes in the funding world.


Previous research on sustainability has found that a clear vision, strong leadership, ongoing funding, and opportunities for ongoing knowledge generation and transfer can help to enable a promising initiative to persist (Coburn, 2003; Florian, 2001; Louis & Miles, 1990; Taylor, 2005; Yonezawa & Stringfield, 2000). Yet, research on student-voice initiatives has indicated that they often lack these components for the long term (Mitra, 2007). The cases in this study indicate that the IOs could mediate four needsvision, leadership, funding, and knowledge sharing. Table 3 summarizes the findings of the in-depth illustrative cases in this article.

Table 3. Alignment of case findings with sustainability themes





Knowledge sharing

Business Enterprise

Technical assistance with curriculum; big successes and visible results

Many adult mentors and succession planning, and strong student leaders

Multiple sources of funding

Sharing of ideas at competitions and through IO network

Student Forum

Initially many project successes, eventually a focus on group dynamics only

Initially strong adult advisor, but turnover

External funding support but funding ended

Initial sharing of ideas, but gone when funds dried up

Campaigns for Justice

Broad and challenging goals

Lack of connection to a school; ongoing recruitment needs for finding students

Loss of IO funding support

Youth and adults received training from broader network

Table 4 connects these findings back to the broader set of cases by comparing the extent to which the illustrative cases align with the rest of the youth-adult partnerships in their quadrants. As the table indicates, the other cases in each of the quadrants faced successes and failures similar to the cases highlighted in the findings. The exception to this pattern is the Unsuccessful IO partnership group. For this group, the in-depth case study, Campaigns for Justice, was chosen because it was the strongest of the three cases, but it still failed. The remainder of this section discusses the four themes in detail.

Table 4. Comparison of case findings







IO partnership

Highland: Business Enterprise



X1, 2


Hillside: Unity of Youth



X1, 2


Hoover: GayStraight Alliance



X1, 2


Latin: Peer Resources



X1, 2


Morgan: Peer Resources



X1, 2


Sierra: Youth Taking Charge


Visionary leader

X1, 2


Unsuccessful IO partnership

Midland: Campaigns for Justice



Loss of funding 2


Great Valley: End the Stereotypes


Loss of leader

Loss of funding 1,2


King: Youth Voice



 Loss of funding 2


Unsuccessful school  based

Whitman: Student Forum


Loss of leader

Loss of funding 1


McGuire: Peer Mentoring


Loss of leader

Limited 1


College Center: Unity Council


Loss of leader

Loss of funding 2


X= Condition that was supported sustainability

Italicized cases are featured in Findings section.

1 These cases received district funding.

2 These cases received external funding.


The role of the IO appears to strengthen the ability of youth-adult partnerships to establish and maintain clear visions for their work. The task of maintaining vision has been shown in previous literature to be necessary for moving toward deeper and more meaningful actions rather than continuing on at the same level of implementation (Coburn, 2003; Hargreaves & Fink, 2000; McLaughlin & Mitra, 2001). Table 4 indicates which cases possessed clear and meaningful visions as compared with cases that had a very narrow or unclear definition of their purpose. The sustained student voice initiatives in this study, highlighted by the Business Enterprise case, had clear intentions for their groups that were both far reaching and yet specific. Business Enterprise developed a series of initiatives focused on student entrepreneurialism, including developing a school lunch program and a tax advice service for local senior citizens. In other successful cases, Hoover developed a series of programs around the core goal of tolerance, including producing a video, participating in the National Day of Silence, and educating their peers during Diversity Week at their school. Sierra, Morgan, and Unity of Youth focused on developing projects that addressed societal inequities, and Latin pursued a series of initiatives aimed at improving youth self-esteem. In all the cases, the IO or external organization was the catalyst that encouraged a focus on entrepreneurialism and tolerance. The sustained groups also were able to translate clear visions into early successes, or visible victories (McLaughlin, 1993). These accomplishments helped to clarify the groups intentions, to build morale internally, and to legitimate group activities to the broader school and community. The clearest example of such a visible victory was the success of the Business Enterprise Group winning the international competition.

In contrast, the failed groups tended to lack a coherent theme and failed to accomplish their projects that tended to be narrow. Specifically, three of the disbanded groupsHigh Hills, King, and Great Valleydid not plan any activities beyond the project that got them the seed grant. They also lacked the visible victories that could help the group to move forward.


In addition to the importance of clear, longer term vision, the stability of leadership in these student voice initiatives proved to be critical, because youth are only present in a school setting for a maximum of 34 years (Mitra, 2005). As Table 4 indicates, all but one of the successful cases possessed an established transfer-of-leadership process. In contrast, many of the unsuccessful groups faced great struggles when this strong leader left without a stable plan for transferring group ownership. Although some sustainable organizations persisted with a long-lasting founder, these organizations rarely survive beyond this person unless the youth-adult partnership restructures itself to learn succession planning and leadership transfer. Indeed, all the unsustained, school-only organizations that did not succeed dissolved in large part because they lost their leader.

This finding aligns with previous research that discusses the need for alliances at multiple levels to sustain educational change (Berends et al., 2002; Coburn, 2003; Datnow et al., 2002; McLaughlin & Mitra, 2001; Ucelli, 1999, cited in Moffett, 2000). Alliances help to fend off leadership problems and ultimately sustain initiatives. IOs tend not to be included in the multiple layers of a policy system, perhaps because they provide a horizontal linkage to schools rather than a vertical one. One of the implications of this research therefore is the value of identifying the horizontal structures and relationships that can support and sustain change efforts. Whereas previous research has pointed to the value of information teacher networks in bolstering ongoing change (Lieberman & Grolnick, 1996), this article highlights the particular importance of how sustainability can be improved by establishing alliances beyond the traditional school system. The partnerships of IOs and schools in this study to build student voice initiatives provided a more formal, often contractual, commitment that provided stability despite staff turnover.

Whitmans attempt at leadership transfer failed in part because of a loss of funds for the organization. It also struggled in part because no overlap occurred between the outgoing adult advisor and the chosen new adult advisor. Thus, a transfer of the understanding of the group culture could not be transmitted if the students were unable to do so themselves. Although district funding changed the class composition, at the same time, the initial adult advisor of Whitman, Amy Jackson, possessed a strong connection to the group; she indicated that she would have fought to keep it going, regardless of the new difficulties, if she had remained at the school. Whitman illustrates the tenuousness of student voice initiatives. Although it initially had a clear vision, strong leadership, and some external resources, the loss of leadership and resources at about the same time eliminated the stability that the group had established.


Table 4 demonstrates that all of the sustained organizations also possessed a sophisticated long-term funding structure that included both the IO and school district support. IO staff and school and district personnel tended to assume the fundraising responsibilities in most successful student voice initiatives. IO staff members focused their time and energies on applying for grants from foundations, cultivating private donors, and working hard to ensure long-term financial support from school district officials. The combination of resources from multiple funding streams helped the organizations to survive and therefore helped the projects in this study to survive as well.

In contrast, all but one of the disbanded student voice initiatives suffered from a lack of revenue. Access to funding therefore proved to be critical for the groups in this study. Four (Whitman, McGuire, High Hills, and College Center) did not have a steady funding stream through an IO and therefore did not have financial support other than from their districts, which quickly dried up in a context of statewide budget cuts. Two other student voice initiatives lost funding when their IOs closed their doors (Campaigns for Justice and King). Although an IO cannot guarantee ongoing funding, it does provide a more intentional process for gaining necessary resources because IOs possess a greater capacity to provide ongoing funding and technical assistance. Looking at the outliers to this finding, the Campaigns for Justice case was highlighted in this article because it provides important insight into the funding balance. The group took no district funds and offered one of only two examples in the study of IOs that closed their doors because of the inability of the organization to secure ongoing funding. This case suggests the hypothesis that a balance of district and external funding might provide the most stable funding structure.

This research suggests that establishing long-term collaborations with IOs can help to address the problem of ownership transfer that often hampers sustainability of change initiatives (Coburn, 2003; McLaughlin & Mitra, 2001). With the support of IO staff who could work on securing ongoing financial support, training, and networking opportunities, student voice initiatives partnered with an IO could focus on their vision for change rather than worrying about their ongoing survival. IOs also provided for staff members whose jobs were to serve as advisors and technical assistance providers for youth-adult partnerships in the study.


Affiliation with an IO provided more than monetary support. It also provided access to an outside network of information and knowledge transfer (Brown & Duguid, 2000). Table 4 demonstrates that five IOsPeer Resources, Business Enterprise, Gay-Straight Alliance, Unity of Youth, and Campaigns for Justiceprovided training and support for adult advocates/advisors. Other advisors sought support beyond their IO by looking for other organizations that offered conferences and meetings for adults working as advocates for youth, such as the youth-organizing exchange retreat that was attended by Campaigns for Justice and Unity of Youth adult advocates from this study. By working with other student voice initiatives affiliated with the same IO, groups had the opportunity to gain ideas and opportunities for dialogue from other sites. Adults in particular had opportunities to learn, and discuss with other adult advisors, how to engage in the challenging work of enabling youth leadership. These networks provided additional sources of ideas and information, including conferences on supporting youth activism and Web sites that both facilitated communication and shared resources. This ability of IOs to find networks has been highlighted in previous literature for its ability to foster knowledge, increase political and social ties, and improve administrative activities, as indicated in recent research (Honig, 2004). Although IOs appeared to have accomplished similar goals in this study, the fact that both successful and unsuccessful IOs offered networks leads to the hypothesis that networks alone do not increase sustainability. Future research, however, might examine whether the quality of the networking opportunities and the depth of the connections matter in terms of providing a supportive environment.


Research increasingly points to the importance of school-level (Datnow et al., 2002) and district-level (Berends et al., 2002; Florian, 2001; McLaughlin & Mitra, 2001; Ucelli, 1999, cited in Moffett, 2000) supports as critical for sustaining educational change. This article argues for a broadening of the multiple layers of a reform structure beyond the formal policy system to include a broader cast of actors. These nonsystem actors provide supporting roles such as coaching, professional development, provision of funds, and creation of reform visions.

Although they are a part of many reform initiatives, partnerships with IOs are usually considered short-term relationships during the implementation phase of an initiative. The expectation tends to be that they will fade into the background as ownership of an initiative is transferred to a school (McLaughlin & Mitra, 2001). This research instead suggests that IOs might be better suited as long-term partners in many change efforts. This shift in conceptualizing the role of these organizations has implications for reform efforts in schools, including the need to engage in a more strategic analysis of potential opportunities for partnerships between schools and IOs. Such alliances could help push the intransigent structures of schooling toward including more voices in the decision-making process. Unlike traditional coaching models in which the district hires nonsystem actors, IOs tend to bear at least part of the responsibility for funding an initiative. This sharing of resources could require a sharing of decision making regarding the initiative as well, and therefore, a more collaborative model of educational change would be needed. Those evaluating educational change initiatives also might want to look more closely at the explicit and the indirect ways that IOs impact the educational change process. An awareness of the important roles that IOs can play in the long-term work toward change could help researchers, practitioners, and policy makers think more intentionally about how to plan for stabilizing such partnerships as an avenue toward sustaining reform initiatives.


1. The focus here on the persistence of a change effort does not equate sustainability with institutionalization. In such an instance, the reform does not merely persist; it becomes taken for granted, or a part of the fabric of the way a school operates (Coburn, 2003; Hargreaves & Fink, 2000; McLaughlin & Mitra, 2001; Pluye, Potvin, & Denis, 2004). This article also does not attempt to link a discussion of sustainability with the concepts of scale (Coburn, 2003) or diffusion (Rogers, 2003). Both of these terms explain the ease with which innovations spread more broadly to other locations and contexts.

2. For more information on connections between student voice initiatives and positive youth development outcomes, see Mitra (2003).

3. Although the researchers previous research on student voice initiatives had inspired the foundation to develop this grant program, the researcher was not involved in the design or operation of the program and was not responsible for evaluating the program. Rather, the research discussed in this article was conducted independently of the staff and funders of the program.

4. The interviews lasted approximately 60 minutes each. All interviews were recorded on audiocassette and transcribed to preserve the words of the interviewees.

5. Groups that did not continue with their partnership could not be a part of the final round of data collection.

6. The protocol used for the second round of data collection was roughly the same, but with a focus not on looking forward but on looking back over the course of the project and considering what the youth-adult partnerships next project would be. The final protocol was much shorter; it focused on whether the youth-adult partnership continued. If it did not, probes were included for why it had ended. If it had succeeded, the protocol asked for an update in project goals, personnel, and changes in group structure, similar to the protocol presented here.

7. Observation opportunities were therefore chosen to maximize the opportunities to observe as many groups as possible.

8. Member checks were conducted with the adult ally of the Sierra Group, the adults and youth of the Whitman group, the adult ally of the Unity of Youth group, the adult ally of the Peer Resource group, the adult ally of the Campaigns for Justice group, and 2 youth members and the adult ally of the Business Enterprise group.

9. It should be noted, however, that the trend in the cases was either for the group to have dissolved completely or for the group to be continuing the new program, not for groups to continue without the new program.

10. For example, previous research emphasized the importance of the relationship between sustainability and professional development for youth and adults. Although only half of the groups participating in such training sustained their work in this study, this finding from the research served to connect the theme of an overall lack of capacity with the possibility of adult and youth training needs discussed in the data. This finding was not robust enough to become a theme itself, but served as a subpoint under the broader finding of knowledge generation needs identified in this study. Another alternative explanation considered was the value of networks for the purpose of knowledge transfer. This explanation did not appear to influence sustainability based on the patterns of cases that had access to networks (see Table 4). However, the theme was significant enough to be included in the discussion as a topic for further study.

11. Previous studies of the work at Whitman were conducted by the researcher (Mitra 2003, 2004, 2008), which included extensive ethnographic fieldwork consisting of over 70 interviews and weekly observations over a 2-year period.

12. Emphasis is Kellys own.



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School/group name

Adult interviews

Student interviews

Total interviews

College Center: Unity Council1

1 (1st round)

3 (1st , 2nd rounds)


Great Valley: End the Stereotypes1

1 (1st round)

1 (2nd round)


Highland: Business Enterprise

3 (1st, 2nd, and 3rd rounds)

4 (1st , 2nd rounds)


Hillside: Unity of Youth

3 (1st, 2nd, 3rd rounds)

4 (1st, 2nd rounds)


Hoover: GayStraight Alliance

2 (1st, 3rd rounds)

3 (1st, 2nd rounds)


King: Youth Voice Initiative

3 (1st, 2nd, 3rd rounds

3 (1st, 2nd rounds)


Latin: Peer Support

2 (1st, 3rd rounds)

2 (1st, 2nd rounds)


McGuire: Peer Mentoring

3 (1st, 2nd, 3rd rounds)

2 (1st, 2nd rounds)


Midland: Campaigns for Justice1

3 (1st, 2nd rounds)

1 (2nd round)


Morgan: Peer Support

2 (1st, 3rd rounds)

2 (1st, 2nd rounds)


Sierra: Youth Taking Charge

3 (1st, 2nd, 3rd rounds)

5 (1st, 2nd rounds)


Whitman: Student Forum 2

3 (1st, 2nd, 3rd rounds)

4 (1st, 2nd rounds0


Total interviews conducted




1 These groups stopped their work, and thus data collection could not be completed.

2 Reflects data from this wave of data collection; a 3-year study of this case had been conducted previously.




Tell me about how things are going this year with your program. What has changed?

What is the purpose of your organization? (Making change? Youth development? Youth assistance? Something else?)

What kind of supports do adults need to do this work?

What kind of supports do youth need to do this work?

What do teachers and students in the school think about your group? How do they perceive your work?

Who are the groups biggest allies (principals, teachers, outside nonprofit, other)?

Who makes decisions in your group? Who is a leader?

What types of skills do young people need to engage in the work that you do?

What type of skills do adults need?

Have you seen any changes in the school as a result of their work yet?

Have you seen any changes in the youth involved?

What are your plans for continuing your work after the grant ends?


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 7, 2009, p. 1834-1870
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15309, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:08:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Dana Mitra
    Pennsylvania State University
    E-mail Author
    DANA L. MITRA is assistant professor in the department of Education Policy Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests include student voice, youth–adult partnerships, and high school reform. She has recently published a book with SUNY Press entitled Student Voice in School Reform: Building Youth-Adult Partnerships That Strengthen Schools and Empower Youth.
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