Sherwood High School seniors Sofia Maciejewski and Drew Gregory lead a discussion about talented and gifted classes at an October meeting of the Sherwood Student Union. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Ten Sherwood High School students gathered on a recent Tuesday night to talk school policy. There was laughing and pop culture debate in the Sherwood Public Library, but the newly formed Sherwood Student Union spent a lot more time discussing the district’s talented and gifted class offerings.
The teens, taking a deep interest in their own educations, aim to be a bridge between the student body and the Sherwood School Board, part of a growing national push for more student voice in school governance.
Dozens of Oregon school boards have some sort of nonvoting student representative or adviser and at least a dozen more are looking to add student representatives, according to a recent OSBA survey. Student representatives’ roles can range from simply reporting on school events to engaging in policy debates.
The Tigard-Tualatin Student Union pioneered a more action-oriented kind of voice that instigates the debates. An engaged group of Tigard and Tualatin high school students brought together by Ben Bowman’s 2019 board campaign formed the union to advocate with the school board on issues that mattered to them, such as climate change and extracurricular activity fees.
Sherwood senior Sofia Maciejewski was inspired last spring after meeting Emily Phuong Tran, who was a Tualatin High senior and the Tigard-Tualatin Student Union president. Maciejewski formed the Sherwood Student Union with the help of fellow senior Drew Gregory.
They created a constitution, goals and a membership application system. They aim to have Sherwood students attend every school board meeting and engage on issues important to students, whether through public comments or getting on the agenda with proposals.
The group’s leaders have already spoken before the board in support of a new K-5 curriculum and now they have set their sights on getting more resources devoted to high-level college preparatory courses.
The union announced its presence during public comment at the Aug. 24 school board meeting.
Maciejewski, the group’s president, told the board the union wants to form a “mutually beneficial connection” between the school board and superintendent and the student body.
“It is our education, and we know what we need to succeed to the best of our abilities, with the guidance of our teachers and parents,” said Gregory, union vice president, adding that they also know there is a lot they don’t know. They plan to research state and district policies and set up meetings with individual board members and administrators to better understand the issues.
School board Chair Abby Hawkins said the union brings a different discourse flavor than the board’s student representative. Hawkins said she feels a stronger engagement when students are presenting about specific issues that they have identified as important.
“Anytime students want to get involved in their education, it’s worth supporting,” Hawkins said.
Tran said building a trusting relationship with board members is key to communicating student issues and concerns. She said it is important to let students take the lead on which issues they want to tackle without the board trying to dictate an agenda or timeline.
The Sherwood union, like Tigard-Tualatin, is not a school district-affiliated group. The district does not provide advisers or funding, which is why the students were meeting in a free space at the public library.
Tran said an independent student group can work without fear of retribution such as having funding pulled. It also puts pressure on the union to take its mission seriously, because it won’t be held together by school counselors. It forces students to reach consensus because the union’s power comes from the unity of its message, she said.
The Sherwood union has about 20 members, Maciejewski said, and she would like to draw in more members from middle school and eventually elementary school. She wants to solicit the full range of student experiences, and she envisions older students acting as mentors for younger students.
“We want to empower students to take the driver's seat in their education,” Maciejewski told the board in August. “We strongly believe that when students know the ‘Why’ behind decisions and rules they will be more passionate about their education. We want students to be aware of the district’s inner workings and how they can advocate for themselves.”
That appeals to freshman Trevor Tsui, union secretary. He said he joined because understanding the decisions that go into curriculum makes him more passionate about his own learning.
The board pushed the students to do more than just make public comments. It required them to compile research on talented and gifted programs before presenting to the board as an agenda item. Maciejewski said that was a little frustrating at first because they just wanted to share their opinions. She realized, though, that a legitimate presentation opened the way for more feasible actions.
As union members dug into what they wanted out of the talented and gifted program, they realized they needed to know more about why the program is the way it is, and they set up meetings with the TAG coordinator. They hope to put their conclusions on the board agenda soon.
“We don’t want to just put them on blast,” Maciejewski said. “We want to understand how they see it. We want to make sure both sides are getting what they want.”
Senior Dylan Peniuk, union tech director, joined the union because he doesn’t feel as if he has much of a voice as an individual.
“If we get enough people, we can make a difference,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA