The New Lobby
While her classmates play basketball or rehearse for the school play, 17-year-old Miecha Werwie, a senior at Southern Senior High School in Churchton, Md., has been devoting her leisure time to a somewhat more tedious activity--reviewing the Anne Arundel County Public Schools' budget with her colleagues on the board of education.
"When I'm with them, I feel a lot more grown up,'' says Miecha, who was appointed to the board as a voting member last year. "They talk to me as if I'm their equal; the conversation is always very mature.''
Miecha is one of a growing number of ambitious high school students who are helping formu- late education policy as student representatives on local boards of education. Education observers trace such involvement--which typically takes the form of nonvoting membership or observer status--to the efforts of student activists who began lobbying for student representation in the early 1970s.
Approximately 100 to 150 school boards currently have students participating on some level, according to Jeremiah Floyd of the National School Boards Association. Among the major cities with student representatives are Chicago, New York, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. In California, where some school boards have long provided students a spot at their table, the legislature last year passed a law allowing students in any district to petition their local board for representation.
The idea has grown so popular, in fact, that the Student Reform Coalition, a Chicago-based group founded in 1989, is planning to sponsor a nationwide education conference for student board members this May. The coalition expects at least 70 student board members from public schools to attend, and it anticipates that they will be joined by roughly 130 other student-government leaders from public and private schools.
In most cases, students on local boards are either elected by a popular vote of the student body or appointed by student governance organizations. Anne Arundel County is one of the few districts, if not the only one, to give students full voting privileges on the board. Miecha, the current representative, has found her experience both enlightening and frustrating. Because of the state's current fiscal woes, she has had little opportunity to promote new programs. "I don't feel like an advocate for students, because we don't ever have a chance to think about anything new,'' she laments. "It seems like all we have been thinking about is cutting and taking away.''
Along with their student board member, nearly 200 Anne Arundel students are involved in policymaking through membership on various county administrative committees. "What is most enlightened about the board and our administration's attitude,'' says Steven Barry, a student-affairs specialist who oversees the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils for the county, "is that they recognize and appreciate the students' right to disagree.''
The New York City public schools, the nation's largest system, instituted a nonvoting student position last fall, and Won So, an 18-year-old senior at Stuyvesant High School, took office in February. A student advisory council appointed Won to the position after he completed a rigorous three-stage application process involving written and oral interviews. In the future, the student member will serve a oneyear term, from July to June.
Even before he officially joined the board, Won visited many New York City high schools to consult with students about their concerns. Among the issues Won hopes to draw the board's attention to are multicultural education and the dropout problem. He realizes he faces some obstacles in his brief tenure. "It's a really big bureaucracy,'' he says.
Still, Won remains undaunted. "The students of New York City,'' he says, "are like a white shirt with a small black stain on it, and all the attention of the media is focused on this small black stain.'' Won would like to redirect media coverage to the positive accomplishments of the city's students.
In Brookline, Mass., meanwhile, Leah Oppenheim, the student school-committee representative, and her fellow student-government officers are focusing their efforts on persuading the board to allow semi-restricted condom distribution in secondary schools. "It is hard because we're kids,'' Leah notes. "A lot of the time the 'officialness' of the meeting is frustrating because they just won't let us do what we want.''
What many young board members like these have to offer schools is a fresh perspective and a greater willingness to take risks, says Ralph Wilson, president of the National Caucus of Young School Board Members. The caucus, which has approximately 100 members, defines "young'' as under 35. Although most of its members are in their mid-20s, the post-teenagers, like the high school students, find that they are not always taken seriously by their constituents, says Wilson, a 29-year-old who sits on the Natchitoches, La., board of education.
In contrast to some of her peers, Miecha of Anne Arundel County finds her age and status to be an advantage. "I don't have any political ties to anyone,'' she explains. "I don't have anything I owe to anyone.''
While many of the young politicos look at their school board terms as an intrinsically valuable learning experience, some also view their positions as a steppingstone to higher electoral offices. New York's Won, who will matriculate at Harvard next fall, dreams of eventually serving as the first Asian-American U.S. Senator from New York. "I'd love to be 'the education Senator,''' he muses.
Miecha, on the other hand, does not see a future for herself on Capitol Hill or in the statehouse. "I don't want to go into politics,'' she says. "I never really understood before how harsh politics could be. You're always looking for a reason why someone is motivated. I just want to do something where the motivation is good and honest and simple.''
What career would she prefer to politics? "I want to be a teacher,''