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What makes a student council? Lessons from hosting a state convention

Covered in their blue emergency ponchos, crossing over a slippery state seal outside the legislative building, nearly 600 students from across the state flooded downtown Raleigh at 9 a.m. on a rainy Saturday. A day two years in the making was finally here.   

At a Friday night football game in 2015, my student council co-adviser told me our students were interested in running for an elected office with the N.C. Association of Student Councils (NCASC)I responded, “Go big, or go home.” My co-adviser would soon taunt me with those words. Later that year, our school’s council was elected to the office of the state president-elect, tasked with hosting the 2017 NCASC State Convention.

Having served as co-adviser for all of six months, and never having attended a state convention until our election year, my gut reaction was, “What did we just get ourselves into?” Mind you, my co-adviser and I had worked with our students on school dances, fundraising drives, and powder puff football games, but the process of planning a statewide experience for 600 students was daunting.

Students gather at the Legislative Building to prepare for district pictures.

To give you a bit of background on the NCASC: they are a non-profit organization with the single mission to support the growth and maintenance of North Carolina schools’ student councils. They host a wealth of events throughout the year centered on nurturing student leadership and generating a positive school culture through student-led activities. Last July, I wrote about their summer workshop at Mars Hill University, and its contributions to educating students outside of the classroom.  

Thanks to my co-adviser’s dedication, our council has been an active member in the association and benefited tremendously from their programs. With these experiences, and the fact we would be hosting in our state’s capital, we wanted a conference theme that would highlight the amazing things student leaders can and have accomplished across our state.  “Our State of Leadership” was born.

After two years of planning, fundraising, and mostly begging, our council pulled off the largest state convention in the association’s recent history. After a week of recuperation, I began writing this piece as a reflection of the process. Looking back, I have figured out what truly makes a student council (or any school club for that matter) successful:  

Building and maintaining community support

One of the first challenges our council faced in convention planning was the inability to raise funds. Promptly, a group of parents gathered and asked, “How can we help?” This was the start of our parent booster club. Throughout the planning process this group was instrumental in finding donors and lending services and expertise to the event. This speaks to what every student organization needs to be effective—strong parental support.

Forming this coalition between teachers, parents, and students gave our organization the opportunity to work with various venues in the community that would later support our event.

On Friday night of the event, students were greeted by a rodeo of local food trucks and different field day games, borrowed by a feeder elementary school. On Saturday, students split into various groups and toured museums in downtown Raleigh and the General Assembly building. While at the General Assembly, Representative Grier Martin, D-Wake, and Senator Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, spoke with small groups on what it means to be a leader in their communities.

The willingness of these local business and elected officials to attend this event gave our student participants a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They saw firsthand what leadership looked like in our community and how it impacted our school’s culture. Every club needs to build strong ties to the school’s surrounding community because it allows a symbiotic process of learning between students, teachers, businesses, and local leaders.  

Understand the importance of giving back

With this focus on community support, student organizations must also find ways to give back to their communities. At our convention, the Triangle Chapter of QUOTA International, “an international service organization that provides basic needs to women, children, the deaf, and hard of hearing in communities around the world,” provided the materials for our 600 participants to make felt blankets for SAFEchild NC. This fun and easy service project allowed students to collaborate toward the common goal of producing over 200 blankets.

Sponsored by Triangle Chapter of QUOTA International, students work on making felt blankets for SAFEchild NC Saturday.

Later that day, chapter president, Natalie Knowles, told me she had received a call earlier that week that the local SAFEchild had run out of blankets to distribute and that she was planning to deliver the ones our students had made that same day. Talk about seeing an impact. The work students had put in that day was instantly making a difference in our local community.

While many school groups may struggle for a physical product to donate, a good old-fashioned fundraiser has the same affect.

On Saturday evening, the NCASC presents the association’s awards and accolades to celebrate the council’s achievements. This year’s crowning triumph was the $39,110.70 check the organization gave to their state charity, Victory Junction, a summer camp for chronically ill children in Randleman, N.C. Member schools, my school included, fundraised throughout the school year to be able to contribute to this year’s donation. These funds allow for campers to enjoy what many children take for granted: a summer camp experience.

2016-17 NCASC President Ardeshir Pirzadeth, Vice-President Sawyer Russell present Victory Junction with a check. Schools from across the state fund raised to contribute to this donation.

Student councils are meant to unite student groups around the school under a common cause, and this statewide effort embodies the importance of giving back to the community.        

Having strong adult leadership

Every club has to have an adult to do the paperwork and drive the bus; however, the dedication of advisers can make or break a student organization.

At our Saturday night banquet, one award is presented to showcase an adviser and her work to positively impact the lives of the students in their council. This year, the award celebrated its 40th anniversary by having past recipients (many retired) take the stage to collectively present this year’s award to my co-adviser, Ms. Keysha Mayfield. Highlighting her dedication for 10 years of service to the Leesville Executive Council, the award symbolizes the single most important factor to a child’s education, whether that’s inside or outside the classroom—the teacher.

Keysha Mayfield, Leesville Executive Council co-adviser, accepting her Adviser of the Year award on Saturday night.

But it all comes down to one thing…

Our convention concluded with the election and installment of the 2017-2018 Executive Board, comprised of students and advisers from across North Carolina. Each one offers a new perspective, and represents a geographically and socio-economically diverse area of our state. I found this to be a poetic end to our event, primarily because it ends with a new beginning; after all, this is what makes a student organization strong—instilling a capacity for the leaders of tomorrow: our students.

Students enjoy touring the downtown Raleigh museums Saturday. Student were led by Leesville Road High School students throughout various stations to learn about leadership in our state.
Trey Ferguson

Trey Ferguson is a math teacher at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh and co-founder of the Beginning Teacher Network.