Students thrive in welcoming school board environment
When some students decided their school district needed to address climate change issues, they worried the adults wouldn’t take them seriously, said Mady McClung, a Tualatin High School junior.
Instead, they received guidance, support and mentorship, and the Tigard-Tualatin School Board adopted their climate resolution April 11. It was another victory for the Tigard-Tualatin Student Union, which is blazing a trail for school board-student interactions.
“They weren’t just seeing us as students; they were seeing us as future leaders,” said McClung, a member of the union's environmental committee.
Ale Gutierrez De Nova, a Tualatin senior, said the board was more supportive than he expected.
“It was nice to know they have our backs, and we can count on their listening to us,” he said.
The Tigard-Tualatin Student Union, a group of policy-minded students from the district’s high schools, is a national model of student engagement with school boards. School Board Chair Ben Bowman and Superintendent Sue Rieke-Smith spoke at the National School Boards Association conference in early April on linking student voice to policy and practice. Bowman said the key is building ongoing relationships with student leaders and a commitment to really listening and not just patronizing students.
Bowman said the board must be ready to work with students on the issues important to them even if the board’s initial answer is no.
Tualatin junior Claire Roach, also a member of the union’s environmental committee, said she appreciated the board’s honesty with students, and not just saying “We’ll think about it” before moving on. She said the policy will have more impact because it was a collaboration between students and district leaders.
Bowman is a true believer in student input. The union grew out of students’ work on Bowman’s 2019 school board campaign. After the election, the students wanted to continue working for issues they saw as important. The original student leaders graduated, but a new crop is carrying on with important policy work.
With deep research and carefully crafted arguments, the union has pressed the school board to pass a hate speech policy, drop extracurricular fees and make menstrual products more available.
Board member Tristan Irvin said those issues were already on the school board’s radar but the climate initiative was wholly a student creation.
“It said to me as a board member that we are making good strides at making students feel comfortable bringing their ideas forward,” she said. “As a board, we are here to serve our student community. That is impossible to do on an authentic level if they are not involved.”
Irvin said she was impressed by the way district administrators shepherded students through the process without taking over. Students were pointed toward contacts and guided in their research, but students did the work and they made the decisions.
Tualatin junior Isabella Kneeshaw said they held meetings with different department leaders to learn what was already being done and to find out what was realistically possible. Kneeshaw said they were treated as respected peers and the experience has given her confidence.
“As a freshman, I never would have thought I could make a difference and talk to these people or that they would listen to me or care what I would say,” she said.
Kneeshaw gives credit to the board.
“We would not have gotten anywhere with this if our board hadn’t been so open to our ideas,” she said. “Staying open and listening to students is the best thing you can do.”
Tualatin High Principal Michael Dellerba said students’ ability to shift Tigard-Tualatin policy is instrumental in creating long-lasting improvements for student success.
“Without student voice at the center, how can we really effectively change schools?” he said.
Students worked nights and weekends for months to research, prepare and vet their resolution ideas.
Gutierrez De Nova said he learned some important lessons: Work with people who will work as hard as you will, but who you also enjoy spending time with. And, above all, be organized.
The resolution calls on Congress and the Oregon Legislature to enact climate-friendly policies, while also committing the school district to “assume the most urgent efforts,” including:
- Increase plant-based menu items and sustainable practices in food service.
- Introduce climate-change curriculum for grades K-12 by the end of the 2023-24 school year.
- Identify ways to measure and monitor energy and resource usage.
- Budget for green infrastructure.
The resolution also sets up a climate-crisis committee for the next school year. Students will lead the committee with a board member presence under public meeting rules. The committee will work with community stakeholders to explore how to implement the resolution. They will report to the board in the spring.
Bowman expects the resolution to save the district money in the long run, as well as pay dividends in community and student goodwill. He gives full credit to the students.
“I think they make us better as a district and a school board,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA