One of the California S3 initiative’s focus areas is promoting youth development among participating high school students. In partnership with WestEd, the California Department of Education conducted “Listening to Students,” or student fishbowl circles,1at each of the 58 S3 high schools in fall 2011, where students and school staff participated together to engage in meaningful dialogue around school climate data. The process began with a participating high school selecting 6–8 diverse students and 4-6 staff members representing administrators, teachers, social workers, etc. The facilitator met with the youth first and helped them prepare for questions that focus on developmental supports or issues and concerns specific to the school.  Examples of questions included:

What does the data say?

40% of students could not name one adult at school that cares about them (California Healthy Kids Survey, 2011).

  • How do you know when a teacher or adult in your school really cares about you?
  • How do you know when a teacher or adult believes in you?  What do they say and do?
  • If you could change one thing about this school, what would it be?
  • What are your goals and dreams? What can the adults in the school do to help you achieve your goals and dreams?

After the initial prep, students were seated in a tight circle and took turns sharing their thoughts on the questions, while staff sat in an outside circle listening to the students.  Once all students answered the questions, they broke into smaller intimate groups to discuss the major themes of the fishbowl. Then, the students and staff developed a plan that included at least one action item that they wanted to work on when they returned to their school. Action items have included adding more garbage cans to campuses, reviewing tardy policies to take into consideration things that are beyond a student’s control, and adding credit recovery classes during the summer months. An evaluation of fishbowls showed that the vast majority of schools were taking these action items seriously and following through with the promises made during the activity. What a powerful process!

A process meaningful for students and staff:

“The most important part is that staff was actually listening to what I said without interruption.”

– Student

What are the Next Steps?

To date, 58 California schools have been trained in fishbowls. This year, they will offer a Train the Trainer model for schools that want to facilitate their own fishbowl activities. One high school has even started Lunch with the Principal, to continue the dialogue with students! 


For additional information, contact Hilva Chan, Educational Programs Consultant, at

1 The Listening to Students Fishbowl Focus Group was created by Bonnie Benard and Carol Burgoa, adapted from Student-Led Focus Group Self-Study Toolkit, Laboratory Network Program, 2000.