For Ambitious Students, School-Board Seats Offer Real-World Lessons

By Meg Sommerfeld — January 29, 1992 7 min read

While her classmates play basketball or rehearse for the school play, 17-year-old Miecha Werwie, a senior at Southern Senior High School in Churchten, 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, to which she was appointed as a voting member last year.

“When I’m with them, I feel a lot more grown up,” Ms. Werwie says. “They talk to me as if I’m their equal; the conversation is always very mature.”

A growing number of ambitious high school students are helping to formulate education policy as student representatives on local boards of education.

Education officials trace such involvement--which typically takes the form of non-voting membership or observer status-to the efforts of student activists who began lobbying for student representation in the early 1970’s.

Approximately 100 to 150 school boards currently have students participating on some level, according to Jeremiah Floyd, the associate executive director of the National School Boards Association. Among the major cities with student representatives are Chicago, New York, San Diego, and Washington.

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 rounded in 1989, will sponsor a nationwide education conference for student board members this May, according to Phillip Bleicher, Chicago’s honorary student school-board member.

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.

‘Right To Disagree’

In most cases, students on local boards are either elected by a popular vote of the student body or appointed by student governance organizations.

One of the few districts, if not the only one, to give students full voting privileges on the board is Anne Arundel County, Md., which has done so since 1974.

Ms. Werwie, the current representative, has found her experience both enlightening and frustrating. Because of the state’s current fiscal woos, Ms. Werwie says, 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 instead of thinking of new things.” Along with their student board member, nearly 200 Anne Arundel students are involved in policymaking through their membership on various county administrative committees.

“I think what’s unique is the attitude within our school system that recognizes the student voice,” says Steven G. Barry, a student-affairs specialist who oversees the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils for the county. “What is most enlightened about the board and our administration’s attitude 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. Won So, an 18-year-old senior at Stuyvesant High School, will take office next month.

A student advisory council appointed Mr. So 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 one-year term, from July to June.

Even though he has not yet officially joined the board, Mr. So has already visited New York City high schools to consult with students about their concerns. He plans to create an advisory council with two representatives from each of the six New York superintendents’ student-government councils.

Among the issues Mr. So hopes to draw the board’s attention to are multicultural education and the high dropout rate.

He realizes he may face some formidable obstacles in his brief tenure. “ifs difficult, and I’m a little bit nervous,” he admits. “it’s a really big bureaucracy, and ifs hard to learn in such a short time” all the subtleties of the sprawling system.

But Mr. So remains fairly undaunted about the tasks that lie ahead. “The students of New York City 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,” he observes. Instead, Mr. So says would like to redirect media coverage to the positive accomplishments of the city’s students. In Brookline, Mass., meanwhile, the

school-committee representative, Leah Oppenheim, and her fellow student government officers are focusing their efforts on struggling to persuade the board to allow semi-restricted condom distribution in Brookline secondary schools.

“it is hard because we’re kids,” Ms. Oppenheim notes. “A lot of time the ‘officialness of the meeting is frustrating because they just won’t let us do what we want.”

Not Taken Seriously

What many young board members like these have to offer schools is a fresh perspective and a greater willingness to take risks, according to Ralph Wilson, the 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-20’s, the graduates, like the current high-school students, find that they are not always taken seriously by their constituents, says Mr. Wilson, a 29-yearold who sits on the Natchitoches, La., board of education.

“It’s really difficult,” Mr. Wilson says, “to seek public office at an early age, when you’re single and you don’t have children in the school district.”

One who was surprisingly successful is 18-year-old Kathy McDonald of Puyallup, Wash. Just five months after she graduated from high school, she employed grassroots savvy and a $50 budget to net a seat on the local board of education last November, unseating an eight-year incumbent in the process.

While working at a Sears store, Ms. McDonald kept a watchful eye on the addresses on her customers’ checks. “If I saw someone was from Puyallup, I’d tell them I was running for school board,” and then would strike up a conversation, she says.

In contrast to some of her peers, however, Miecha Warwie, the Maryland board member, finds her age and status to be an advantage. “I don’t have any political ties to anyone; I don’t have anything I owe to anyone,” she explains.

As might be expected of young elected officials, many of these youthful board representatives maintain packed schedules, and must learn how to manage their time efficiently early on.

Political Aspirations

In addition to her school-board responsibilities and homework, Ms. Warwie plays soccer in the fall, works in a local video store on weekends, and occasionally testifies before the Maryland legislature and the state board of education on education issues.

Meanwhile, New York’s Won So, who holds a black bolt in tae kwon do, is president of his school’s martial-arts club, volunteers for a charity, and helps out in his father’s store during vacations.

He attributes his perseverance to the example of his father, who works 15 hours daily at the fish store he owns. “Watching him, it’s hard for me to relax,” Mr. So explains.

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.

Mr. So will matriculate at Harvard next fall, where he hopes to study political science, and he 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. Although he might have considered a Presidential bid, he is ineligible because he was born in South Korea, and he thinks that “even when I’m 50 or 60 or 70'= the country will not be ready for an Asian-American President.

In contrast, Anne Arundel’s Miecha Warwie does not see a future for herself either on Capitol Hill or in the statehouse. “I know 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.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as For Ambitious Students, School-Board Seats Offer Real-World Lessons