Kevin: Among the largest school districts in the United States, 14% have students serving on their boards of education. Some have full voting rights, some play an advisory role, but all are there to help ensure that students are represented when adults make education policy. But if students' voice is really being heard when big decisions are made, how do students feel about the big issue school boards are tackling? And how can student board members improve the school governance process? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by three student school board members to find out. Hana O'Looney is a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland. She serves as a student member of the board of education and is active in several student government organizations. Hana is especially focused on issues of diversity and inclusion, and improving the ways that school board makes policy.
Raymond Adderly attends Fort Lauderdale High School in Florida and was elected to represent students on the Broward County School Board. Raymond is a staunch advocate for teachers and school safety and is working to infuse more transparency and accountability into the school board's work.
Zachary Patterson is a senior at University City High School and is the first student ever to be elected to the school board in the San Diego Unified School District. He is dedicated to seeing schools do more about issues like climate change and student mental health. And he strives to be an advocate for all students in his district.
Hana, Raymond, and Zachary welcome to "What I Want to Know." I'm really excited about this program. I want each of you to respond to this basic question, why did you get involved in your school district, and why do you think it's important? So, Hana, why don't you tell us a little bit about what led you to be on the Montgomery County School Board?
Hana: I would love to. Thank you so much for that question. So, I'm in Montgomery County, Maryland, which as you know, borders the district of Columbia, which means that we have a lot of socioeconomic diversity where we are. And growing up, for lots of personal reasons, I ended up moving around my school district quite a bit.
One of the first elementary schools I started at had about 15% free and reduced meals, what we call a FARMS rate. And I remember we had lots of teachers who had been in the school system for a really long time. We had a really involved parent-teacher-student association, lots of extracurricular opportunities, lots of electives.
And then I ended up transferring to another school where the free and reduced meals rate was much higher at around 70% to 80%, and none of those opportunities were really available. So I saw how even in Montgomery County, which is consistently lauded as one of the premier school districts in America, the wealthiest school districts in America, there is so much inequality. And I really wanted to run so I could have a voice in the decision-making process about where resources are allocated to combat those inequities and make sure that no student's educational outcome can be predicted by their race or their family's income or any sort of demographic characteristic.
Kevin: Raymond, talk about your experience in Broward County. I understand that Broward County has been through a lot over the last several years. I mean, you know, the school shooting and you were the first one elected. Talk a little bit about what drove you to that position.
Raymond: What really, really mind-boggled me was when I started looking at the way that people were treated in lunch lines. When I would see students that were 25 or 50 cents short, and they were told they couldn't receive lunch. When I had students in my school that couldn't afford a $10 t-shirt to support their class in our fundraising operations. I began to ask more questions and I began to realize that it wasn't just at Fort Lauderdale, this was a district-wide problem.
And through that, I began to see the poor facilities in our districts. The complete neglect for districts that are low impoverished. So I decided to run to be the student advisor to my board to amplify those voices, to give, as you were saying earlier, that in voice what it's like to walk the hallways. And from that, I also decided to run for the school board as well. And I'm the youngest candidate in my county to do so.
Kevin: Zachary, talk about how you got involved and why this was important to you.
Zachary: I really started my step into student activism in around seventh grade. Students are the primary stakeholders of the education system. And how does it make sense that those that are the primary stakeholders of the education system have 100% of the populace and 0% of the representation? It's ridiculous. It makes absolutely no sense. I did what any good seventh-grader. And I said I wanna create a student advisory board, and I wanna add a student to the board of education.
So we really created a movement. We came together and at the end of the day, it took me about two and a half years. But at right around two and a half years, I was honored to get that formally approved by the school after discovering an education code in California that allowed me to force the movement to add a student to the school board.
Kevin: So I wanna talk about this notion of respect, and I know each of you have been championing a larger voice for students, but some have voting rights, I think Hana does, and some don't. Some student leaders on school boards around the country have token representation. But they don't get called upon, you know, vote on bond deals, or construction deals or, you know, finance meetings. How do we close this respect gap?
Raymond: I think it starts with them understanding that they don't know better than us. Yeah, they might have a little bit more life experience or a bigger bank account, for sure. Maybe a car insurance, maybe kids themselves, but they don't know better than us about what's happening day-to-day in our schools. And that way it is imperative that they do listen to those who are.
Furthermore, I think it also goes to the fact that at least on my desk, you have a lot of decisions by board members and they preface with making their decisions saying, "Well, in my district, here's what we would do," or, "If I was a parent, this is the decision I would make for my child." I think it comes with the reality that Raymond isn't your child, and neither is Zachary, or neither is John, who's in the district. And so a decision that you might make for your child might not be accommodating to someone else's.
Zachary: Let's look at how we all introduced ourselves. Kevin, you said, student representatives, Raymond, you said student advisors, Hana, you're SMAB and that's the same thing as a SBM, a student board member. So four different ways that we chose to say that. Now, let's look at them. So, I think student advisor's a great one to begin with. Well, what is a student advisor to the board? Are you a member of the school board? Are you an advisor? Well, that might be the wording, but yes, it matters because that's what starts to stratify us, right?
That's what starts to say that the student is somehow less. When I think of the word student representative, it's kind of a joke. We've banned the word in our leadership meetings. I say you can't use the word student representative. One of the things we preach is full equality.
We think that you should be completely equal to your board members. And if your board members are board members, then you are the student board member. If they're trustees, then you are the student trustee. And we do that because we recognize the fact that people are constantly trying to look at students and invalidate us. We're not old enough. We're not smart enough. We're not there yet. One day in the future.
Those things are these unusual constraints that someone at some point decided to say, "This is the role of a student. I'm the teacher, you are the student. Thank you, tomorrow." That's not gonna work. That's not how we're gonna transform the education system.
Kevin: Yeah. It makes sense. And I have some thoughts on that, but let me hear from Hana because I know she's itching to get in here.
Hana: I am. I think I offer an interesting perspective of our three members here because I do have full voting rights. And there is actually a lot of respect, I think in Montgomery County for the student board member because it's a position that we've had for 44 years and full voting rights for about 10. So, I vote on everything from everything that goes on in closed session. I voted on our recent superintendent appointment. I vote on collective bargaining, every single budget item. I introduced my own budget amendments. And tomorrow, I'm introducing a few policies of my own that I'd like to see our school system take on.
But I think the real benefit in having a student board member to the work that we do on my school board isn't just the work that's done at the dais, it's in building a healthier school system for the entire community. What I mean by that is the way that I was elected onto my school board, in my district, we have a full county election with about 88,000 students from grade 6 to 12, who participated in an election to get me to where I am. Meaning that in a lot of cases, I was actually elected to my position with more votes than some of my colleagues, adult colleagues.
Kevin: One of the things when I talk to student leaders they get frustrated about, especially when they go to school board meetings is there are these agenda items. And each of you have referred to the school board agenda because it's such a big deal when you have these school board meetings. And oftentimes, the agenda items that are prepared by sort of the usual suspects of leaderships on school boards has nothing to do with the issues or agenda items that are troubling students every day.
So, each of you, and I'll start with Zachary, can just name two or three things that you feel that school board should be paying more attention to from an issue solving point of view than what you hear in most of your meetings. Zachary?
Zachary: Mental health, hands down that would probably be the number one I can think of across the nation. And to be specific, we're not talking about the mental health that's convenient for everyone to talk about. We're talking about the challenging portions of it. We're working on a curriculum right now in our school district and we're talking about educating students on mental health. Not just providing...not just talking about mental health clinicians that might be coming to schools once a week, let's look at how we create long-term budget investments.
And how we use our federal dollars that we have to really begin an infrastructure investment that legitimizes mental health to the same extent as physical health. I think the students are suffering. Students have always been suffering, but more so now than before. We see as we enter a new age that mental health is such a prevalent priority and yet we're not caught up with where we need to be to support students every day.
Hana: I'd have to agree with Zachary, I think mental health, especially coming out of this pandemic. We can't make up these gaps in learning loss that everyone is so focused on right now if we don't first uncover the mental health trauma that's occurred over the past 18 months. An issue that I really don't think he's talked enough, especially in school districts as socioeconomically diverse and quite frankly segregated as Montgomery County, Maryland is the issue of de facto segregation.
The fact that Montgomery County and really every public school district for a really long time was segregated by race. And though it may have ended by law, DSHEA, we still see in a lot of our school districts, for example, in mine, that we have a 90% white school, just a few miles away from a school that's 90% people of color and students who are low income. And I think that's a really huge issue that is difficult for a lot of people to talk about and can often be a really nasty conversation, but one that needs to happen because I think diversity is our strength and that's how we strengthen our educational system.
Kevin: All right. Thank you very much. Raymond.
Raymond: Well, I guess this is really common here across the country, but mental health is very important, especially here in Broward. I think that we began to see a lot of the disparities as far as mental health are concerned. I think it was really, really exacerbated after Marjory Stoneman Douglas was here in our county.
The cry-out for that was so great. And our district responded inadequately. We are still behind the power curve of implementing the changes that were recommended by the state as far as mental health is concerned. And then as Hana just alluded to, also after this pandemic, we are still dealing with the pandemic, but we are still dealing with the aftermath of that. And we have to be able to grab that before it grabs us.
And I don't say that lightly, I don't like to scare people, but that is the truth of the matter. In our district, we have seen some of the most violent fights this year and an influx of guns and knives on our campus more than we ever have. And we have to be able to combat that. And that starts with taking a robust student-focused mental health approach and ensuring that we are aligning our resources to provide those things.
Kevin: The politics of education, I think, is the biggest barrier to getting things done. And we are in a political world where it's, "I gotcha. You're either with me or against me." You know, "I'm a strong conservative, I'm a strong progressive. I can't talk to you. I can't be with you. I can't find common ground because the party caucus tells me not to."
The question I want you to answer as quickly as you can is, how has, and this is what I really wanna know, how has the current political environment impacted your ability to leverage relationships on the board of education? Hana?
Hana: You know, I think we've seen this year, especially in elections, like right over across the river in Virginia, the governor's election, education has really become the battling ground of ideology, political ideology. And that has become a really dangerous situation where people have antagonized those who disagree with them and refuse to work. And something that should be, or seems as cut and dry and unpoliticized is education has become a battling ground.
So, it's a difficult question, one that I'm still trying to navigate myself, but I think we need to focus on what unites us, which is our common shared goal of making sure every student is prepared for a college, career, and community and is the best person that they can be.
Kevin: Totally agree. Raymond?
Raymond: Luckily for me and Broward, it's a predominantly Democratic-heavy county. So, we don't really have tons of issues as far as politics is concerned, but I will definitely say without a shadow of a doubt, the governor of our state and our state legislature makes it very difficult here in Broward to do anything. I mean, from the passing of the Woke bill, to the passing of the, Don't say gay bill, the huge Anti-CRT campaign, all those things have impacted our curriculums in Broward, and also have divided our county.
Kevin: Yeah. Zachary?
Zachary: We want our students to be successful. And we want, at the end of the day, for our students to have a high quality and solid education. And we might have different visions on how we get there, but what we do know is we have a vision, we have a belief, the same belief that Horace Mann had when we talk about education being the great equalizer, when we talk about education being the foundation.
And the basic thing that we know is we're gonna keep working to get there if we keep our conversations open, challenge ourselves to reflect on the information that we're putting forward, is this valid information? Is this credible? And challenging ourselves and challenging our students to understand what is a true narrative? How do I evaluate things to understand their validity, to understand how true they are?
Kevin: Well, well said. Thank you all very much. I really appreciate your thoughtful approach to your positions. And I also appreciate the fact that, as I mentioned at the top of the show, this notion of you being part of the future is somewhat misleading. Because to me, the future is now. If we're present and we're focused on leaders that we need to build, as you said, Raymond, the world of tomorrow, we clearly need people as thoughtful and critical thinking-minded as you are. And so, I thank each and every one of you for joining us on "What I Want to Know." Good luck.
Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #wiwtk on social media. That's #wiwtk on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Meet Meet Hana
Hana O’Looney is a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Maryland. She serves as a student member of the board of education and is active in several student government organizations. Hana primarily focuses on diversity and inclusion issues and improving how the school board makes policy.
Raymond Adderly attends Fort Lauderdale High School in Florida and was elected to represent students on the Broward County School Board. Raymond is a staunch advocate for teachers and school safety and is working to infuse more transparency and accountability into the school board’s work.
Zachary Patterson is a senior at University City High School and is the first student ever to be elected to the school board in the San Diego Unified School District. He is dedicated to seeing schools do more about issues like climate change and student mental health and strives to be an advocate for all students in his district.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.