Mitra, D. & Serriere, S. (2012) Student Voice in Elementary School Reform: Examining Youth Development in Fifth Graders


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Curator LEARN

Article Summary

Title: Student Voice in Elementary School Reform: Examining Youth Development in Fifth Graders

Year: 2012

Author: Dana L. Mitra, Stephanie C. Serriere

Primary AuthorDana Mitra

Criteria: Prominence of author, compelling story/case study, implications for programs at the elementary school level

Key Takeaway: Discover the inspiring journey of the "Salad Girls," a group of fifth-grade students who sparked a revolution in their school lunch policy.  Through this compelling case study, educators will gain insights into the power of student voice, as these young leaders navigate roadblocks, conduct school-wide data collection, and bring about a district-wide policy change. This tale of empowerment demonstrates the transformative potential of teaching students to tackle real-world issues.

Summation and Insights: This incredible case study chronicles the lives of “the Salad Girls,” six fifth-grade girls who decided to change the traditional salad served at their school lunch.  Though many of us think of empowerment and changing school or public policy as the domain of adults or teenagers learning to be adults, this important study in student voice featured six elementary school girls, affectionately known in their school district as the “Salad Girls.”  The Salad Girls came together over Dewey Elementary School’s premade lunch salad, served with croutons, cheese, and ham.  

One regular Friday afternoon in the cafeteria, three students, Tameka, Ayesha, and Haley discovered that none of them could eat the school salad served for lunch that day due to various health and religious reasons.  Tameka was lactose-intolerant, Ayesha was Muslim, and Haley was an Orthodox Christian and it was a Friday.  The three girls agreed that their lack of food choices was an important shared concern to bring to their teacher, Mrs. O.  

Starting with Mrs. O, the story of the Salad Girls is also the story of tremendous educators who empowered their students.  Mrs O. had an incredible response to the Salad Girls.  She told the girls that “she was proud of them” and helped them to set up a meeting with their principal, “Principal S.”  Though the girls initial impulse was to picket and protest the school lunch, Principal S. led them in a different direction - toward an amazing civic journey that would transform each of their young lives.  Teaching an “inquiry-based approach,” Principal S.’s first move was to direct the Salad Girls to the weekly school-wide community forum, or All School Gathering, where Tameka, Ayesha, and Haley presented their concerns to their peers and asked for their help - in the process picking up three more “Salad Girls” for the cause - Bella, Libby, and Madison.  The girls ultimately were guided through a process in which they visited every single classroom in the school to ask other students’ opinions on changing the school salad.  

The Salad Girls took on the task of school-wide data collection and professionally presented this data to the school’s cafeteria coordinator and the district-wide cafeteria manager.  At first, both cafeteria managers initially denied the “Salad Girls” request, citing roadblocks such as district requirements, efficiency, etc. but ultimately the district wide cafeteria manager agreed to run a pilot program at Dewey where the children would have three salad options, including one with no meat and one with no cheese.  This successful policy was eventually adopted by the entire school district, and the Salad Girls became community heroes featured in the local paper and graced by a visit from the State Department of Health.  This exercise in student voice, in which students take on active leadership roles in solving real-world problems, transformed these girls’ sense of their own empowerment and ability to affect change in the world.  One quote from a Salad Girl says it best: “I know that I can change stuff now, and if I try hard enough that I can.”




22 June 2023