Voice Recognition
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KSBA News Article

Student voice a choice for school boards

student board member

Kentucky School Advocate
November 2022

By Josh Shoulta
Staff writer

With proud parents and a packed board room looking on, Shelby County High School senior Perry Allan raised her right hand at the request of the judge standing next to her. For more than 10 years, the Honorable Michael Harrod has graced Shelby County Schools’ central office to swear in the district’s board members, all of whom watched, smiling, from their seats.

Sporting a black robe, colorful bolo tie and shoulder-length gray hair, Harrod administered the oaths from memory and with casual ease, suggesting he does this often. Allan repeated each phrase with confidence. Once sworn in, she joined her board colleagues, sitting behind a metallic placard that read, “Perry Allan: Student Board Representative.”

While decades younger, Allan shares several characteristics with her board counterparts.

Like most board members, she is very busy. Besides her commitments to the school board, she has been involved in concert and pep band, Talented and Gifted, Readers Club, National Honor Society, Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Best Buddies, the school newspaper and several other service-focused organizations. She is also active in her church youth group, finds time to work at the nearby Shelbyville Pharmacy and is enrolled in dual credit courses.

Like most school board members, she was elected (twice), although her votes came from the SCHS student body.

And like most board members, Allan cherishes the opportunities to recognize students for their accomplishments.

“It is one of my favorite things about going to the board meetings,” she said. “I get to see all of the different amazing things that students in our school district are doing.”

During the Oct. 20 meeting, Allan helped recognize the Shelby County Starz, a local Special Olympics softball team, for their recent tournament win. She then presented special faculty and staff awards for teamwork. For the rest of the meeting, Allan took notes and listened attentively to each agenda item, from transportation and building renovation reports to a breakdown of recent state assessment results. At one point, she was asked to give an update on the high school’s upcoming fall festival. Not until the last item, a closed session in which student reps do not participate, did she put down her pencil.

“I have learned that there is a lot more to every little decision than I realized,” Allan said. “The process for voting on any small or major matter must go through all members of the board who have listened to public opinion, listened to student opinion, and listened to faculty from the district. It is really assuring to know that they care about the impact their decisions will make on everyone.”

Student perspective on the board is important, but not new, according to Shelby County Superintendent Sally Sugg.

“Our first student board member was installed after the board enacted the policy, effective October 2006,” she said.

Sugg explained that the student reps are regularly given time to share ideas and ask questions.

“Students routinely bring informal survey data from their peers on topics of interest. Students are not shy in sharing their opinions and we respect the experiences they bring to the board table,” she said. “Even though they don’t have a formal vote, they weigh in on topics during discussion.”

Student board reps a growing trend            
Morgan County senior Emma Grace Landsaw (center) poses with board team members following her installation as Morgan County student board representative. Provided by Morgan County Schools

 

In all, 16 districts across Kentucky have adopted policies for non-voting student board representation. While the duties consistently include attending and participating in board meetings and, in most cases, participation is limited to high school students, criteria for selecting student members varies.Morgan County’s student board representative was installed during the board’s Oct. 18 regular meeting, following an application process open to seniors. Her term runs October through May, during which time the board will rely on her for insights.

“The student representative does a monthly report,” said Morgan County Superintendent Ralph Hamilton. “They also offer feedback on agenda items that relate to students. Student voice is powerful. It is important to hear from our greatest stakeholder.”

As part of its student board representative selection process, Graves County students must submit a video explaining why they wish to be considered. The videos are then shared with the student body ahead of a schoolwide vote. Christian County Schools, which is slated to introduce its newly elected student board representatives on Nov. 3, also circulated videos from candidates for a student body election.

Johnson Central High School students Nicholas Hardin (left) and Constance Martin, both recently selected as Johnson County Schools student board representatives, take part in the board’s October meeting.  Provided by Johnson County Schools

Johnson County, which adopted a student board rep policy this school year, also conducted a student body election. Two representatives – one senior and one junior – were selected for the intitial year of the program. The junior selected will serve a two-year term, and an incoming junior will be elected to a two-year term each year.  Other districts build programs around existing student government. Both Fleming County Schools and Owen County Schools charge the elected student council presidents with board representative duties.The student board representative program at Boone County Schools dates back 20 years and mimics a local school board election with nominations from the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council delegates, campaign videos, speeches, ballots and even results certified by the county clerk.  


Rising sophomores and juniors who wish to serve as board representatives for Paducah Independent Schools must meet eligibility requirements, including a 2.5 minimum grade point average, good disciplinary and attendance standing, and availability to attend all meetings. Candidates must also submit an essay and two letters of recommendation. The student body then elects two representatives.

Paducah Tilghman High School sophomores CoryOn Brooks (left) and Jayda Reed (right), sporting their student board member T-shirts, take part in discussions with students as part of their duties as representatives for Paducah Independent Schools. Provided by Paducah Independent Schools

 

“Involvement in the board of education meetings consists of providing input from a student’s perspective through meetings with students, staff and the community and presenting that information back to the board of education,” said Shonda Burrus, chief equity officer and a student board member adviser for Paducah Schools.Burrus attributes a mantra for the representatives to the district’s students: “If you are planning for us, without including us, then it really is not for us.”

Gallatin County board member Becky Burgett agrees that input from the district’s student representative has been valuable, especially on issues that directly impact students such as academic programs, school climate and pandemic response. She noted the students’ mere presence at meetings has elevated the expectations for how board members conduct themselves.

“It is also vital that members role model good behavior and respectful conversation, especially when dissenting,” she said.

That model behavior has not gone unnoticed.

“I have learned how to communicate with people who have different opinions from me,” said student board representative Zach Simpson. “Learning how to respect opinions while disagreeing with them is a very important life skill.”

For many, student board representation is a learning opportunity that gives them an understanding and appreciation for local decision making.

“I have attended Morgan County High School for four years but I have never really known much about our Board of Education,” said Morgan County student board representative Emma Grace Landsaw. “I have met and talked with members on the board and have learned about their positions. I have learned about state and county regulations for schools, and the expectations held for each.”

Smith

Graves County student board rep Elizabeth Smith, who initially heard about the position from a friend, also said the experience has been eye-opening.“I’ve learned that way more goes into these schools than what’s just seen on the outside,” she said. “I’ve learned more about the financial aspect in our school system as well as how our student body affects it.”


School board meeting agendas can be packed, and the conversations complex. Amid the serious business of district governance, student voice can prove to be a powerful tool in advancing a district’s mission, and not just a feel-good photo opportunity, superintendents say.

Christian County Superintendent Chris Bentzel encouraged boards considering adopting a student representative policy to make it happen.

“Take the leap of faith,” he said. “If your district is sincerely about students, then students need to be present and provide feedback in all aspects of running a school district.”

Gallatin County High School senior Zach Simpson (right) is sworn in as the Gallatin County Schools student board representative by board attorney Jim Crawford (left). Provided by Gallatin County Schools

Likewise, Letcher County Superintendent Denise Yonts doesn’t see a downside to involving students in the work of the board.“Having a student helps to keep the board focused on what matters most, our children,” she said. “We believe in student agency and what better way to show that than giving them a seat at the table?”

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