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Parkrose ensures school board members hear students’ side
Parkrose High School junior Justin Santos (left) and senior Hunter Napa’a engage in Parkrose policy discussions Monday as student representatives on the school board. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
The Parkrose School Board has gone all in this year with soliciting student voice, adding two student representatives and two backups. The students can’t vote, but they have a standing place on the agenda and they give formal recommendations that are part of the record.
Student representative Justin Santos is clear on his mission.
“I really want to uplift voices that are not heard,” Santos said.
The four students provide a vital conduit between students and the east Portland district's elected adult leaders. They participate in meetings, raise student issues and survey board questions among their peers. When problems with school lockdowns or racist taunts at sporting events emerge, students provide their viewpoint at meetings.
Before this school year, student voice at the school board consisted of the student body president giving a report on less-pressing events such as team scores or job fairs.
“It was all good stuff, but they would give their report and leave,” said Parkrose School Board Chair Elizabeth Durant.
Student presentations in spring 2020 about racial and mental health issues showed the board that student engagement could be more, Durant said. The board decided it needed a stronger student connection.
Student engagement has been a hot topic in recent years. An unscientific OSBA survey earlier this school year showed at least 20% of Oregon school boards have student advisers or representatives, with nearly two dozen more considering adding student input. Student participation ranges from council members giving reports on school activities to elected, nonvoting representatives who participate in board debates.
The Parkrose School Board spent a year working with students to create a model that worked for their district.
Superintendent Michael Lopes Serrao said student leaders shaped the program, including persuading school board members that students should be elected, not appointed. The Associated Student Body co-presidents, seniors Hunter Napa’a and Kennedy Phillips, are the student representatives. Senior Class President Beni Berhe and Junior Class President Santos are the backups.
Students wanted more than one representative because being the lone voice among adults can be intimidating. Students wanted backup representatives because jobs, sports and other after-school activities make it difficult for a student to commit to the twice-a-month meetings.
Recognizing that students lead busy lives and some need to work, the board also decided to pay the students. The student representatives are paid $15 per hour, the district’s standard wage for students, for their work outside school hours.
Santos and Napa’a — who spoke at Monday night’s meeting on racial issues, student mental health and school finances — said they would be student representatives without the pay but it demonstrates the board values their input and respects their time.
The students are also earning a social studies credit. They attend the regular meeting and the work meeting each month and meet between sessions with the superintendent and Director of Teaching and Learning André Goodlow.
In addition to previewing the meeting agenda, the students learn basics on parliamentary proceedings and education issues. They also learn about legislative advocacy.
“They are really interested in knowing what levers they can push,” Lopes Serrao said.
The students’ presence shifts the dynamic, Durant said. Accountability feels different when board members are looking at the students who will be affected by their decisions, she said.
The students add to the viewpoint diversity of a board that is already majority people of color but can’t possibly represent all the experiences of one of Oregon’s most diverse school districts.
Napa’a specifically wanted on the board so he could represent his Pacific Islander community members. But he said he is also there to listen and learn and take information back to his peers and his community.
School board member Sonja McKenzie said student representatives offer a deeper kind of perspective than public meetings, surveys or encounters in schools. Working with the superintendent and other administrators helps students offer better informed and more considered input, amplifying its impact, she said.
McKenzie, the OSBA Board president-elect, said the addition of student representatives was a “natural next step” for the board because of the value it places on community engagement and student voice.
Berhe, however, said it is just the first step. Berhe feels empowered being able to take issues directly to the board, and the student representatives want to work on spreading that notion among all the students. Already students share with Berhe issues such as harassment and racial bias episodes that the teens might not be comfortable sharing with teachers or administrators.
Berhe, who is African American, said she has not always had good experiences expressing her concerns to adults, but the school board members listen. That, in turn, has her feeling less powerless when something bad happens.
“You can see the reactions on members’ faces, that they really feel passionate about helping us,” she said. “It almost makes me feel like I’m going to cry.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Hunter Napa’a, (from left) Justin Santos, Kennedy Phillips and Beni Berhe are the Parkrose School Board student representatives for 2022-23. (Photo courtesy of Parkrose School District)