How Schools in Canada Successfully Engaged Kids in Participatory Budgeting

Chelsea is a small municipality located in the province of Quebec, Canada, about 20 minutes drive from Ottawa. In 2015, Chelsea implemented the first school participatory budgeting (PB) project in North America that involved three elementary schools and a community center. The Meredith Community Centre allocated a small portion of its budget for this pilot project, and the schools mobilized the students to deliberate and make decisions on how to allocate those funds.

The Chelsea schools' participatory budgeting is unique for four reasons:

  • First, whereas participatory budgeting processes involving several schools tend to start from the office of a mayor or a district superintendent, in Chelsea it was a bottom up process that was spearheaded by a parent, the teachers of the three local elementary schools, and the board and management of a local community center.

  • Second, while most school participatory budgeting processes around the world involve high school students, the Chelsea process demonstrated that elementary school children are willing and able to participate effectively in such a process.

  • Third, whereas most school PB processes held simultaneously at different schools follow an internal logic, with each school having its own participatory budgeting process, the Chelsea school shows that schools can collaborate in a single process to work on a common project outside the school property.

  • Fourth, the Chelsea school participatory budgeting shows that it is possible for schools that belong to different school boards and use different languages of instruction can come together to overcome institutional and linguistic barriers.

In this interview Duguid, who spearheaded the Chelsea school's participatory budgeting process, discusses the main features of this experience and lessons for future school participatory budgeting processes. Duguid has a doctoral degree in adult education and community development from the University of Toronto, and has been the lead researcher on a number of projects including studies on co-operatives in Canada, women's cooperatives in Turkey, and non-financial indicators for cooperative impact assessment. She worked at the Cooperatives Secretariat for the Government of Canada, the Canadian Cooperative Association and for the International Cooperative Alliance. She is President of the Canadian Association for the Study in Co-operation (CASC) and is an instructor with the Saint Mary's University Cooperative Management Education (CME) program.

Daniel Schugurensky: Fiona, when and how did the Chelsea School PB process start?

Fiona Duguid: It started around April 2015, when I had informal conversations with the board members of the Meredith Community Centre to explore the possibility of using a PB process for a portion of their budget involving the three elementary schools in the municipality.

What was the initial reaction of the board?

They were very keen and enthusiastic, for at least three different reasons. First, they were aware that they lacked a good connection with the community. Second, they had few ideas regarding the activities or resources elementary school children in that area wanted from the recreation center. The third reason is that at that time the Meredith board members were open to experiment with something new to find out that information and deepen that connection, and they saw PB as one piece that could help them to reflect the needs of the community.

What happened next?

Once I got the green light from the center, I approached the three elementary schools: Grand Boisé, a public French school; Chelsea Elementary, a public English school; and a private, French Montessori school. I met with them to explore their interest in becoming involved in a PB process with the community center.

How did the schools react to the idea?

I would say that they reacted with cautious optimism. On the one hand, they were positive because there was a real appetite on the part of the schools to do something like this. On the other hand, the teachers and school administrators were concerned about having the necessary resources to do it well. Although they were enthusiastic, they were also worried about their capacity to support students with the process because they were not familiar with it. As a result, they had lots of questions, mainly about the PB process itself, but also about the material outcomes and the pedagogical impact. Once they had some clarity about these issues, they agreed to undertake the process.

How did the schools start the process?

Although each school approached the project differently, there was an important common feature. In each school one resource person became a champion for the project and started to galvanize support among other teachers. The key element here is that a process like this requires a champion who is willing to commit to the process. It could be a principal, a teacher or a group of teachers, but without a champion this process is unlikely to take off.

You are raising an interesting point, Fiona. In other school PB processes, we also noticed the crucial role played by champions who are committed to the process from beginning to end. Yes, the champions are very important because teachers are already very busy and do not have a lot of discretionary time to devote to extracurricular projects even if they believe in them. A champion is somebody willing to invest that additional time and energy, and fortunately in the Chelsea school PB each school had at least one champion.

And it is evident that this project also required a champion to help bring together three schools and a community center, and although you are humble, you should be recognized for playing that role. This raises another question: did these schools have a history of working together?

The schools themselves had little history of working together. Chelsea is a relatively small municipality of about 7,000 people spread over 120 square kilometers, and although many students and parents know each other from community activities, the schools do not regularly work together on common projects. One of the factors that hinder interschool activities is that the schools belong to three different boards: English public, French public, and French private. So, it is not really lack of interest in collaborating, but lack of opportunity due to the siloes in which schooling is delivered. The school PB is the only three school common project I know of. PB managed to bring together the schools, and hopefully can continue to do so. The PB process brought a community spirit that went beyond each individual school. Although the schools had different approaches, they managed to work together very well.  

How was the process designed?

After some conversations with the three schools during the late Spring of 2015, in the early fall the Meredith Centre decided to commit $2,000 for a pilot school PB project. Then, a committee of approximately eight people was formed. This committee included teachers, parents and Meredith Centre board members and decided collaboratively the goals and the process of school PB. This committee also came up with some principles. The first principle was that the PB process should be student driven, which really meant that adults should be as hands-off as possible. In early 2016, each school selected four or five student ambassadors to represent their schools at the "three schools table."

How were these students selected?

This is an interesting question, because in each school the selection process was different, and to a great extent reflected the culture of the school. The Montessori school held an election process that involved the entire student population. Grand Boisé already had a parliamentary system and those representatives took on the role of PB ambassadors as well. Chelsea Elementary invited students to write a short letter indicating why they should be selected, and the teachers appointed students based on the content of those letters.

How many ambassadors took part of the PB process?

There were 14 ambassadors in all. There were five from Chelsea, five from Montessori, and four from Grand Boisé.

What was the profile of these ambassadors?

Generally speaking, they were students from upper level grades, that is, students from grades four, five, and six. This means that in terms of age, they were between 10 and 12 years old. Interestingly, there were more girls than boys. In total there were 11 girls and three boys, one from each school. In terms of language, about 80 percent of the students were bilingual, and about 20 percent were not fluent in either English or French.

How did English-speaking and French-speaking kids communicate at the meetings?

This was in my view one of the amazing things of this school PB process, because the students went back and forth in English and French all the time. Most of the time this worked fine, and when the students or the teachers noticed a communication problem they made sure that everyone understood what was said. This is very important in the context of Quebec because there is a history of division between Anglophones and Francophones, with issues of identity and even a referendum on separation in 1995. Given that historical context, it is really beautiful to see the children of today interacting effectively and working together while embracing the two cultures and the two languages naturally.

How often did the ambassadors meet, and what happened in these meetings?

From January to June, the ambassadors met about every two weeks within their schools to organize the process at the school level, and then they met about once a month at the Meredith Community Centre for about six months. At the school level they organized the entire school process. They started by deciding which process would be the most appropriate for their school, and then implemented the process, from idea generation to the final vote. I am more familiar with the Chelsea Elementary School process where their meetings usually lasted about 35 minutes and were held during the lunch break.

What about the monthly meetings of the three schools?

The monthly meetings were held at the community center and took place in the late afternoon, after the school day was over. At the monthly meeting the schools took turns chairing the sessions. This is fascinating because it was a decision made by the students themselves. Chairing the meeting included tasks like preparing the agenda and taking the minutes of the meeting. These meetings lasted about one hour. The students were very efficient and it was impressive how they managed to get everything done in a short time. They didn't waste time but at the same time they were very democratic. I think that we adults could take some lessons from them.

What were the projects proposed by students that went for a vote, and which one was the most voted by ambassadors?

There were many proposals, but at the end the top three projects were a one-day medieval festival, a community garden, and bubble soccer.

What is bubble soccer?

It is a sport that could be played inside or outside in which you wear a transparent suit that makes you feel like you are in a bubble and then you go and play soccer. It is pretty funny.

Can you say a few words about the voting process?

The ambassadors started by expressing their preferences on the full list of proposals — and this was a long list — in an iterative voting process until they boiled down the long list to one final choice, which was the medieval festival. But then, something very interesting happened. After the exercise ended, some of the ambassadors were concerned that this voting process perhaps had not captured the full expression of the student body of the three schools. They were not sure that their final decision actually reflected the actual preferences of the majority of students in their schools.

This is fascinating. It seems that these children were reflecting collectively on their own role as representatives, as they were asking themselves if they were expressing the genuine needs and interests of their peers. How did they proceed then?

Well, after some deliberation on how to proceed, one school put forward the motion of going back to their schools and holding a vote on the top three project ideas so that the voice of all students was heard. The motion was approved, and then each school implemented a voting process on the top three ideas. At the next ambassadors' meeting, each school brought their results to the group, and after all the votes were added and counted, they found out that the bubble soccer won. The ambassadors were thrilled and excited with the revised voting process because they realized that this was more representative of what students in their schools really wanted. They were pleased that they had reconsidered their original decision and took the time to go back to the schools.

The teachers and the adults at the community center were intrigued with the final result because they had never heard of bubble soccer before. They were also happy because they realized that without the school PB they would have not come up with this idea by themselves. The idea proved to be a good one, because now bubble soccer is a very sought after activity in the community center.

Who did the actual procurement once the decision was made? Who contacted the vendors of the soccer bubbles?

Well, this is an interesting issue, because the students spent more time in the phases of idea generation, idea collection and voting than in the budgeting process itself. Fortunately, in the end everything worked out well because they found the bubble soccer equipment they wanted within the budget allocated by the community center. They knew that that they had $2,000 to purchase the equipment, and started to call different vendors asking for estimates. They were very lucky to find a sympathetic vendor who gave them a very good deal. An important detail that the children forgot to consider when they were requesting estimates from vendors was the tax. That was a good lesson for them, as now they know that consumers have to pay taxes when they purchase goods and services, so next year they are more likely to consider taxes when they prepare their budgets. This would also be a learning opportunity to connect with the school curriculum, as students may be curious about why people have to pay taxes, the history of taxes, the different types of taxes, or the allocations of taxes.

What do you think students learned from this process?

As the stories of the taxes or the revision of the voting process illustrate, this is a fluid process and students, like all of us, are learning by trial and error. Probably the student ambassadors had the deepest learning, because they learned the practical skills to organize a democratic process from beginning to end. They learned to plan and coordinate meetings. In this regard, at the beginning of the process they thought the chair of a meeting would be able to exercise power, but soon they learned that the chair is more a facilitator than an authority, and has to ensure that all voices were heard. The ambassadors also learned about the wishes of students in their schools, about other schools in town, and about the realities of the community center, including what is offering today and what is missing. In the meetings, they learned communication skills, teamwork and collaboration. Because they had to make presentations at their schools and at the community center, they also developed public speaking skills. They also developed self-efficacy, as they are more confident in their own ability to make a difference.

What about teachers and community center board members? What did they learned from this process in your view?

I think that teachers learned about PB in itself, but also that to implement it well requires time and effort, because these processes do not happen in a vacuum. Perhaps more importantly, they confirmed that students have the capacity to lead processes like this if they are given the opportunity.  The community center folks were literally blown away. They were highly impressed by the process, by the outcome, and by the students' capability and poise. These children made very high quality presentations, using powerpoint to illustrate their points, and displaying excellent public skills. The community center board was flabbergasted by the students’ presentations to the board.

Some people may argue that the total amount allocated to this project, $2,000, is too small to be taken seriously, and hence would claim that this is a tokenistic exercise rather than a genuine process of student empowerment. What do you think about this criticism?

First, I would say that the community center was exploring a new process that was never tried before, and you need to start somewhere with the resources that are available to you at a particular time. Now that trust was built among all the actors and the process gained legitimacy, I am sure there will be more funds made available for the next iteration of school PB.

Second, for elementary school students $2,000 is a significant amount of money to decide upon. The students thought that having the power to allocate $2,000 was amazing. Moreover, I would say that the amount of money is not the most important factor in this process; the amount of money is relative to who you are working with and what they intend to do with it. In our case, the students who took part of this process had a great educational experience and accomplished something tangible for the benefit of all children in this town, and made the community center more responsive to the children who use their facilities. Based on my observations of the process and my conversations with the teachers and community center staff I can say without hesitation that this was not a tokenistic process but an empowering one.

Thank you Fiona. To wrap up this conversation, what are in your view the main lessons that could be drawn from the Chelsea PB process for future school PB processes, particularly for elementary schools?

The first lesson that we learned is the need for a champion inside a school before the process even begins. A champion should be somebody who is excited about the process and is willing to commit time and energy to it. As I said before, the champion could be a teacher, a principal, or a small group of teachers. This is essential to put the process in motion and move it to completion.

The second lesson is that PB should reflect the culture of the different participating schools. Although the process had some general features that were shared by the three schools, there was some variation in each school depending on what was already in place and what would work better in that school. For instance, as we said before, one of the participating schools already had a student parliament and used this structure effectively for the PB process.

A third lesson is that the process should allow students to learn from their mistakes and have the opportunity to revisit the process and improve it while they are doing it. This requires a process that is flexible enough to allow changes and trusts the judgment of the students. An example of this is what happened with the voting process, when the ambassadors decided together to go back to their schools to make sure that their decision reflected the preferences of the rest of the students, and were open to change their original decision accordingly.

A fourth lesson is the importance of recognizing the missed opportunities to connect the school PB process with the curriculum, so all students — not just the ambassadors — can have a deeper learning process. PB provides great opportunities to connect an experiential learning process to curriculum content and to make such content more relevant to the students.

A final lesson is the need to create time at the end of the process to reflect with the students about their own learning. The students who participated in this process were very happy when the process ended because working together they accomplished something tangible for the benefit of other students in Chelsea. However, they were not explicitly aware of the new knowledge, skills and dispositions that they developed through their participation. Making their tacit learning explicit through a reflective exercise could help to close the experiential learning cycle.

All images courtesy of Fiona Duguid

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