How student voice is transforming education in the Yakima Valley

A leadership team gathering around a table in Grandview School District

The University of Washington’s Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) partners with courageous leaders in classrooms, schools and the systems that support them to eliminate educational inequities by creating cultures of rigorous teaching, learning and leading. While they work with school leaders across the country, their work in central Washington's Yakima Valley, especially through a global pandemic, is proving how leveraging student experience can create more equitable leadership practices and educational systems with improved outcomes for all students.

Supporting and empowering school leaders

Founded in 2001 through the UW’s College of Education, CEL has bridged research and practice with instructional leadership-focused frameworks and partnerships. Their work started with K-12 districts in Washington state and has expanded over time to impact partners across the country. In 2018, they expanded their focus beyond instructional leadership to include leadership for additional factors that shape students’ social, emotional and academic development.

Under the leadership of Executive Director Max Silverman, CEL works with central office leaders, school leaders, instructional coaches and teacher leaders in school systems across the United States to transform schools that empower all students, regardless of background, to create limitless futures for themselves, their families, their communities and the world. More simply, CEL supports leaders with professional learning so that they can ensure every student, especially those who have been marginalized and are furthest from educational justice, has a school experience that makes them happy and proud.

Focusing on student experience to guide leadership

CEL’s work in the Yakima Valley spans back to their inception in 2001. Formerly the Lower Valley Superintendent Network, the Central Washington Instructional Improvement Network was established and facilitated by CEL and is a network of superintendents and other school leaders to share learning around instructional leadership and best practices. “It was a desert in Washington state,” said Kevin Chase, Superintendent of Educational Service District 105. “There wasn’t a lot of system-wide instructional support coming out of any university, especially in the Yakima Valley. To have CEL available was a big thing for us. Even to this day, I can’t point to an institution in this state that does the work that CEL does. It has been a breath of fresh air for 20 years.”

In the last couple of years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, CEL’s focus in the Yakima Valley, as well as school systems around the country, has shifted to listening to students’ experiences to guide leadership – especially listening to students of color, whose voices are often the least heard. “Through CEL’s work, we’ve come to realize the fact that if kids don’t feel like they are connected, that they belong, that their voice is heard, they really can’t connect with your system,” said Kevin Chase. “They’re spending inordinate amounts of time trying to fit in, trying to figure out where they belong or if they even fit in the education system. So that whole feeling of belonging and being student-centered is absolutely critical for kids to engage in the work that we’re doing. Without that piece, you lose a whole bunch of kids.”

Leaders in the Yakima Valley are hopeful that this will lead to improved student outcomes. In Grandview School District, they are seeing students perform at higher levels by simply talking with them and understanding what they need. “Working with CEL, they took their work around equity to a deeper level in elevating student voice,” said Henry Strom, Superintendent of Grandview School District. “That really caught our attention here in Grandview. We found the interactions with kids to be very informational. In our middle school, our takeaway was that students are all about that peer-to-peer relationship and how it can be hostile at times. At the high school, we learned about the importance of relationships, that kids felt that teachers cared and therefore would work harder. We then used our learnings to build a stronger culture of belonging and dignity for students.”

Over the course of 2 days, Grandview School District leadership conducted school walk-throughs and over 50 interviews with a diverse set group students across their system at all grade levels. “We believe it’s inhumane to talk to kids and then not do something with what you hear,” said Henry Strom. “So, we sat down and poured through our walk-through and interview data to identify trends and themes, and then determined logical next steps. We have a similar 2-day walk-through and interview process later this year to continue our learning from students.” By talking to students and treating what they learn as qualitative data to analyze and act upon, these leaders are helping to transform instruction and the school district itself.

“When you work in small districts that are challenged with academic outcomes, you must be an instructional leader, because in a small district you wear many hats,” said Henry Strom. “If you’re not an instructional leader, who’s going to be? You’re dealing with kid’s lives and their livelihood, you’re helping families get out of poverty through your work and CEL has certainly influenced that passion for instructional leadership.”

This shift in instructional leadership has had a big impact in the area. “The instruction in the Grandview School District, my former school district, is completely transformed and we have some of the very best instruction I’ve ever seen and that’s really due to the work that we’ve done with CEL over time,” said Kevin Chase. The network of leaders in the Yakima Valley, through their student-centered approach to equity leadership, is transforming the educational system in the area and is a model for other school districts across the country.

“When the University of Washington is affirming your work, it’s very gratifying. That helps to motivate me, to take more risks, to be a little bolder,” said Henry Strom. “I appreciate their continuing push for public education, envisioning where we’re going and what kids need.”

Learn more about how CEL is working with principals and district leaders by watching their 2020 EduTalk or visit their website to learn more about their professional learning opportunities for school districts and school leaders. Through their work, they are creating instructional practices and learning environments where all students can thrive and, most importantly, be happy and proud.



Inquires about the Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) may be directed to Executive Director Max Silverman at