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Students Taking The Wheel in School-Wide Change

Carolina Friends School has always cemented the idea of student leadership in its school values, but how will it react when the ninth grade puts forth a proposal that will induce freedom in all future students?

On November 18, the ninth grade class set forth a proposal to integrate participatory budgeting in the Upper School, a proposal that would eventually lead to students being given a voice in Upper School spending. Participatory budgeting is the act of allowing the broader community, in this case, the Upper School student community, to decide as a group on what ways to use a designated amount of money out of a public or private budget. 

The idea of participatory budgeting was introduced to all ninth-graders by Upper School teacher Melissa Zemon in her class “Democratic Systems.” The class’s purpose, as explained by Melissa Zemon, “is to provide students with a road map to the points of influence. We critically examine America's state and federal democratic processes in comparison with other democracies around the world and then determine how ‘We the People’ can choose to either sanction decisions and systems or change them.” The idea of participatory budgeting was first introduced to the class through Benjamin Franklin’s admiration for the Iroquois confederacy. For a more modern take, a TED Talk by Max Rashbrooke explains how the democratic system is outdated and how participatory budgeting could be a necessary update. This sparked a conversation with Stefan Waldschmit, the Upper School College Counselor, speaking about their experience with participatory budgeting. 

Eventually, Melissa asked the students what they would do if they had this opportunity in the Upper School. “They listed all kinds of great and sometimes fantastical ideas. We noticed there were also commonalities between the four different classes. So, I went to Lauren and I asked if she would sanction participatory budgeting for the students. She agreed as long as it would be for the whole Upper School and it would need to go through Clerks. And so that is what we did!” explained Melissa.

Clerks is a student-led outlet facilitated by staff that allows for students to have their voices heard in terms of what they want and need for the Upper School and how those changes may be implemented. The ninth grade first spoke about possible uses for allocated funds and how the participatory budgeting process would work in the Upper School at the November 18 Clerks meeting. Present at this meeting were staff facilitators, a group of students from among the tenth through twelfth grades, and the entire ninth grade. In the proposal, all Upper School students would have the responsibility to think of different ways to best annually use $1,500  of the Upper School’s budget to benefit the Upper School community in a meaningful way. Some of the possible ideas mentioned by the ninth grade students included more accessibility supports on campus, such as more wheelchair accessible areas and ramps and more gender-neutral bathrooms across campus. 

In the Clerks discussion, some students expressed concern about where this money would come from and how the proposal may affect the Upper School budget as a whole. The ninth grade representatives responded that it would not change the total amount of the Upper School’s yearly budget for supplies and program needs, but would provide students with the opportunity to help decide how the money is used, rather than staff doing the decision-making without first-hand accounts from students. Typically, each teaching unit requests a school-year budget from the School that is largely used for books and other materials for classes. Additionally, money spent on student life programming such as end of year experiences comes from the Upper School budget.

I think it is very important that students have an input in what the school is using money on for the students. Ben Bozzo, '24

Over a total of three Clerks meetings and one Meeting for Business, older students continued to weigh in on the ninth grade’s proposal, with staff support. The senior class initially gave a little pushback on this proposal. When the current seniors were first years, they were asked for feedback on improvements to the Upper School that were never acted upon. The seniors questioned if these new proposals would suffer the same fate. Other students also questioned how the proposal would reach all of the Upper School students, if the final proposals were selected at Clerks meetings. Because the Clerks meetings are not mandatory and occur during break time, when students usually spend time with their friends, there is often low student turnout. In order for it to be a community process, the entire community must put in the effort to be present. It was suggested to present proposal ideas at a mandatory meeting, such as a Meeting for Business, to address this problem. Lauren Brownlee, the head of Upper School, put forth the idea of coming to a consensus within the Clerks meetings and then presenting that proposal at the Meeting for Business, scheduled a week later. This would give everyone a week to deliberate on the proposal and give their feedback.

After deliberation and guidance from the ninth grade students who initiated the proposal, the participatory budget proposal was approved by the Upper School students and staff on December 2, 2021. Moving forward, students interested in submitting ideas can submit a Google form in which they explain what their proposed budget item is, how it would be beneficial to the whole of the Upper School, an estimate of how much it would cost, and the goals they are hoping to achieve. These proposals will then be discussed and decided upon in Clerks. Aspects of this process, even though it is guaranteed, will be evaluated and will evolve continuously. 

While some students remain skeptical, a good majority of students and staff alike see this as an amazing reminder of Carolina Friends School’s community-centered approach and students’ ability to make their own decisions. Roz Zimmerman, a tenth grader, says, “I think it's cool that the students can come together to make this happen. It'll be interesting to see what the student body decides to do with this new funding and responsibility.”  Another tenth grader, Kaeli Nguyen, comments on how big of an impact this is for the ninth grade specifically. “I think it’s great that the school’s empowering younger students to speak up and become vocal members of the community. And then giving them the support to see projects through.”  Other students have remarked on how important it is that students are given a voice in how the money in the Upper School is being spent. Ben Bozzo, a tenth grader, comments, “I think it is very important that students have an input in what the school is using money on for the students.” 

With this process in place, students are given a unique opportunity to truly use their voice and take a stance in leadership. Student leadership is a value that Carolina Friends  continually commits to and encourages students to participate in. This is just one of many ways that students have taken this challenge by the horns. With participatory budgeting, positive student-led change across the Upper School will hopefully occur in the form of physical items such as ramps, bathrooms, and so much more. One cannot help but be excited to see what the students at the Upper School are capable of next.


Kemi Heyward-Rotimi is a tenth grader at Carolina Friends School and a member of the graduating class of 2024. He has been a part of the Carolina Friends School community since 9th grade, joining Carolina Friends School at a pivotal point of change when the community moved towards virtual learning. He is a part of the Equity and Justice Committee, Students of Color Association, Sexuality and Gender Equality club, and a new member of the Teens Advocating for Consent Culture club at Carolina Friends School. He is heavily interested in activism for POC, the LGBTQIA+ community, and body normativity. He has a love for writing, music, the Terminator franchise, piano, guitar, and especially musical theater and acting. Kemi hopes that he can utilize his teachings from Carolina Friends School to not only further his studies but also find and amplify his voice for subjects he is passionate about. 

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