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Students make case for school board representation
Cleveland High School junior Jackson Weinberg was part of a presentation Monday, June 14, by the Caucus of Oregon Student School Board Representatives to the Parkrose School Board. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
As a freshman, Jackson Weinberg saw a student representative partake in a Portland school board meeting. He was inspired.
“You don’t see that much in politics,” Weinberg said. “You don’t see young people in a decision-making space.”
Now as a junior at Cleveland High School, Weinberg is part of the Caucus of Oregon Student School Board Representatives’ effort to increase student representation on school boards. School boards have been adding student voices in a variety of ways in recent years, and some young people think a state mandate is worth considering.
Students and school board members agree student representatives create a two-way communication conduit. Students voice their peers’ concerns and relay explanations of district policies. School board members get a different perspective and a sounding board for the real effects of policies.
The caucus is working with Rep. Janeen Sollman to craft a bill requiring student representation. The students came forward too late to get a bill this year, but Sollman is taking information for next session.
“I believe in it and think it is important,” said Sollman, D-Hillsboro.
Sollman is a former school board member who says she still attends OSBA trainings. She said she would also like to see more student input at the OSBA level.
Deputy Executive Director Mary Paulson said OSBA is looking at ways to increase student input with the association. Paulson said OSBA considers student school board representatives incredibly valuable but would have to see a bill’s specifics before commenting on possible state requirements.
“We would encourage every school board to have student voice as part of their decision-making process,” she said. “They’re the main reasons we’re here.”
Only Ohio and Massachusetts require school boards to include students as members, according to the National Association of State School Boards. California requires student representation on the school board if students petition for it. Fourteen percent of the 495 largest U.S. school districts have students serving on their boards, according to an NSBA survey.
The caucus is surveying Oregon’s school boards, and about 50 have said they have some sort of formal student involvement, said Weinberg, who will be a Portland Public Schools student representative next school year.
Students cannot legally vote on school boards in Oregon, but their roles range from giving regular reports to actively participating in discussions and even taking nonbinding votes.
“It’s a big deal to have direct access and voice concerns,” Weinberg said.
Hillsboro School Board Chair Erika Lopez said their student representatives’ input has informed decisions ranging from class times during hybrid learning to sexual health curriculum.
When the board was discussing school resource officers, a student survey received little response. The board’s student representatives insisted more student voice was needed and suggested using advisory classes to survey students. The resulting feedback shaped the final agreement, said Lopez, an OSBA Board member.
“When we are able to see and hear directly from students how our policies would impact them … it makes us want to make sure that the decisions we make are centering around our students,” Lopez said.
On Monday night, caucus members presented to the Parkrose School Board on why boards need more student participation.
The presentation thrilled School Board Chair Sonja Mckenzie.
“It was everything that I really want for our community, our kids,” she said. “I want that participation.”
Mckenzie, the OSBA Board vice president, said she would like to see more school boards adding students.
“It’s an overlooked resource,” she said. “We need to be listening to our youth, because that is who we are serving.”
The Salem-Keizer School Board, among a growing number of Oregon districts adding student representatives, named its first student board member in January.
Leanette Mabinton, a McKay High School senior, saw herself as both a conduit for student voice and a means to get more students involved with school policy.
“I want to let kids that look like me know that they can have the same opportunities,” said Mabinton, who is African American.
Salem-Keizer School Board Chair Satya Chandragiri said Mabinton’s addition was a “beautiful experience,” adding thoughtful questions and insight.
The Salem-Keizer board had a difficult year, with acrimonious meetings about recognizing a student journalist, the superintendent’s evaluation, racism and public participation in meetings.
Chandragiri called it a “priceless lesson” for Mabinton, and she agreed.
“Showing how we can recover from a mistake is a far more important lesson than sanitizing everything and they never see a mistake,” he said. “We should show our students the good, bad, ugly, everything, but the most important thing is to teach them how not to get stuck on our hurt and brokenness.”
Mabinton said the meetings could be stressful and she had strong disagreements with some decisions. But she said she also learned about agreeing to disagree and the power of acknowledging mistakes.
Salem-Keizer named a new student representative Tuesday, June 15, and Mabinton offered some advice.
“You need to speak your mind and stand up for what’s right and never stop speaking on behalf of students even when everyone else doesn’t agree,” she said.
The Newberg School Board halted its successful student representative program in 2019 partly because a sharply divided board had members “behaving pretty awfully” and bringing up national flashpoint issues that had little to do with Newberg students, according to Chair Brandy Penner. The pandemic paused the restart, but the board plans to have two students for 2021-22.
Penner has reservations, fearing more difficult behavior, but she is also hopeful that students’ presence will remind board members the reason they are there.
“We can have differences,” said Penner, an OSBA Board member. “But if we are centering student voice and experience, I’m hoping that will be very powerful.”
Student representatives say they have become more understanding of school board decisions and they share that with their peers.
Liberty High School junior Ilhaam Ikramullah is one of three students on the Hillsboro School Board. She said they had a real impact on board decisions.
Ikramullah, part of the caucus, called it “mind-boggling” that school boards could be making decisions without listening to students.
“We hear from many students that the decisions school boards are making are surprising and kind of dumb,” Ikramullah said. “When you’re in high school, your perspective on what is happening around you is a lot different than what adults see.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA