Since being elected last summer as the student member of the Hawaii board of education, Bryce Mendez has represented the voices of students who want better training for school security guards and who oppose proposed changes to the state’s high school graduation requirements.
But, even as a nonvoting member, the 17-year-old senior from Maui was never lobbied as hard as when the board discussed the question of whether surfing should become a school-sponsored sport.
“It was overwhelming,” Mr. Mendez said recently of the ongoing debate. “People randomly in public would come up to me, saying, ‘Make surfing a sport!’ And reporters who never come to a meeting would fill the room.”
Nationwide, 17 students in 13 states serve as members of their state boards of education. While only five states allow the student members to vote, all of them are able to voice their opinions—and those of their student peers—at one of the highest levels of state government. And, at least according to students, their voices can make a difference.
Like many of the other students who serve on state boards, Mr. Mendez says his interest in policy grew through his involvement with student government.
A senior at King Kekaulike High School, he says that before being elected by students in a statewide election, he barely recognized political personalities on the news and had little interest in them. But now, he has applied to George Washington University and American University—both in Washington—and aspires to a career in public service.
“It’s not surprising that they take their roles very seriously,” David Griffith, the director of governmental and public affairs at the National Association of State Boards of Education, or NASBE, said about student board members. “These are the cream of the crop. You don’t rise to a position like this without having some ambition.”
Over the past few years, the number of state boards that have student members has grown. As a result, the Alexandria, Va.-based NASBE, which provides training and resources for state board members, is increasing its efforts aimed specifically at the student participants as well.
The 17 student board members are put in contact with each other and also are encouraged to consult NASBE whenever they have questions or need information on an education issue. They also receive all of the same documents and information from NASBE that are mailed to other board members.
But it’s a problem, Mr. Griffith added, that most student members serve only for a year and often miss out on the orientation conferences and other gatherings available to other members.
Facing the Lobbyists
While legislatures often create such board seats in an effort to hear what students have to say, the amount of power student members can wield varies.
In most of the 13 states that have student members—called advisers in North Carolina—the students do not vote.
In five of the states, the students do have voting rights. That power, says Phil Garcia, the deputy executive director of the California state board, can put a lot of pressure on a young person. “It’s a pretty heady thing for them,” he said.
Suzanne A. Tacheny, an adult who serves on the California state board with 18-year-old student member Brent Godfrey from Irvine, called the position “an amazing learning opportunity.”
Mr. Godfrey, who is allowed to vote, said it is hard to know where students stand on issues. He blames that on limited opportunities for students to express themselves, and is pushing for a law that would put a student on local school boards.
“Student opinion on the local level is much more influential,” he said.
Sixteen-year-old Christopher Caniglia, the student board member in Maryland, has faced powerful lobbyists who are opposed to new graduation tests. But Mr. Caniglia, who is allowed to vote on all policy issues but not on personnel and legal matters, says he believes he’s reflecting the views of most students when he says the tests should be rigorous.
“A lot of the students I’ve talked to are in favor of the exams,” he said. “They want to increase the value of that diploma.”
In Iowa, the newest state to add a student to its board, Megan Srinivas says that even though she does not have a vote, she believes that she’s been able to influence others on the board on what continues to be a controversial issue: whether academic requirements for athletes should be strengthened. Currently, athletes must pass six of their eight courses. Ms. Srinivas believes that the requirement should be raised to all eight classes. “We should have high expectations,” she argued, but added that she realized her position might not be popular among some students.
In Hawaii, Mr. Mendez would like eventually to see the student board member given a vote, and he believes he has swayed some of his fellow members to agree with him.
He also supports more funding for school repairs and 12-month contracts for high school activity coordinators—goals that he lists on his personal Web site, where he also professes his preferences for the R&B group Destiny’s Child and a certain brand of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Because the students who are good candidates for such positions are already so involved in activities and organizations in their schools and communities, it can be hard to find students who are not too busy to attend board meetings, said Kathi Slaughter, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education.
In general, most state boards meet monthly, but there are often additional sessions that all members are expected to attend. As with the other members, the students receive travel allowances to cover their expenses.
“They’re not usually slackers,” Ms. Slaughter said. “But it’s important for us that they be here.”
For example, Ms. Srinivas, a 16-year-old junior at Fort Dodge High School in Fort Dodge, Iowa, is involved in debate, volleyball, tennis, drama, dance, student council, and her county’s “youth in action” committee. She also participates in model legislature and United Nations programs. Oh yes, she interned last summer on an agricultural mission to Kenya, and started a nonprofit charity organization in elementary school.
But because she takes some of her classes over the Internet, and has teachers who typically do review work on the days she has board meetings, Ms. Srinivas says her responsibility as a member doesn’t interfere with her schoolwork.
“If I have to make time for something, I just reschedule things,” she said. “One of the things I believe in life is that boredom is one of the worst things that can come about.”
Still, she says, her friends think she spreads herself too thin. As a gift, she recently received the book, Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.
In another effort to get students involved at the state level, some education leaders have pursued student advisory teams to gather and express the opinions of students on issues, such as state graduation tests and the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Georgia state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox did so last year when she asked for students from across the state to serve on a new, 35-member student advisory council. The students, ranging from 9th graders to college freshmen, met at Zoo Atlanta last November, and will meet three more times before their one-year commitment is completed.
“It makes total sense to include students in the decisionmaking process,” said Kirk Englehardt, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. He added that some of the members of the advisory council have even organized events in their own communities to gather more student comments.
While student board members are proud to have such an opportunity, some admit the issues can get a bit dry.
Agenda items like surfing, however, make drawn-out conversations easier to sit through, Mr. Mendez remarked. “I really try to stay attentive,” he said. When he does daydream, he added, “I really wake up when someone gets heated and they start arguing.”
Coverage of education leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as Students Bring Youthful Perspective To State Ed. Boards