SELAH, Wash. -- Selah High School seniors taking American government must attend one school board meeting and one Selah City Council meeting to complete the course.
Madeline Hoppis attends all school board meetings, and often speaks about what’s on her mind. The soon-to-be Eastern Washington University student is a student representative on the board.
“It’s kind of funny,” said Hoppis, 18, referring to what friends and family think of her role. “They will ask me, ‘Why are you interested in that? It’s so boring.’ ”
Hoppis doesn’t view her role as tedious, though. She sees it as a connection between teens and adults that leads to better understanding of today’s schools.
“Being an adult, they don’t necessarily think about all the things going into the school,” she said. “They may not understand all these issues. It would definitely be helpful to have students on a school board.”
A few school boards in the Yakima Valley have student representatives who participate during meetings, providing a student perspective on school issues and updating board members on any happenings. The list includes Selah, East Valley, Mabton, Naches Valley, Prosser and West Valley.
It’s not just a local initiative, as more school boards nationally have incorporated student members into the mix — whether appointed by administrators or student body government or elected by students.
“We know students have the capacity to contribute. We just need to make space to make that happen,” said Adam Fletcher, founder and director of Sound Out, an Olympia-based organization that promotes student involvement in education.
Fletcher believes school boards are the “ultimate democratic lever” in education. But many boards lack the student touch that may be needed to better comprehend the true benefactors of schools: the kids.
In 2014, Fletcher and Sound Out published the “Guide to Students on School Boards,” which details how a board should go about getting student representation.
In the guide, Sound Out lists several reasons why a school board should consider adding a student representative or student board member. Their inclusion, Sound Out research says, improves student achievement, promotes fairness, keeps adults in the know regarding school activities, creates student engagement and promotes diversity.
Idea isn’t new
“Students as school board members are part of the transformation of schools today,” said Fletcher.
The first national discussions on allowing students on school boards happened in the 1960s, said Fletcher. Sound Out research reports that the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction encouraged school boards in the 1970s to consider roles for students.
It remains a work in progress, as the number of school boards with student representation is still a minority. The Washington State School Directors Association, or WSSDA, does not have numbers on how many school boards have students on them, but Fletcher said his sources and research indicate about 20 school boards in the state have student representatives.
However, there is interest. Fletcher said WSSDA invited him to speak on the subject at its annual conference last year. And he has heard that the Mount Vernon and Federal Way school boards are considering giving their students voting powers; most boards nationally do not allow student representatives to vote. None of the local student participants have voting rights
In the past few years, more participating school boards have brought their student members to the annual WSSDA conference. They have separate breakout sessions, get to network with other students, and can listen to some of the same sessions as adults do.
“School directors just love seeing kids,” said Colleen Miller, WSSDA leadership development services director. “It’s like, ‘Wow, look at these student reps.’ That helps the kids a lot when they know they’re well-received.”
“(The students) were well-prepared. It’s kind of an intimidating moment for them to be there,” but they took the conference in stride, added Wendy Morrow, Mabton school board chairwoman. Her board has two students, Rochelle Hernandez and Jose Amezcua.
When Morrow first joined the board more than two years ago, Mabton had only one nonvoting student representative.
Adding another student gives the Mabton board two personalities, and each brings something different.
While Amezcua, 17, is “business ready” with lists of items he wants to talk about, Hernandez, 16, took a little longer to open up. But now she is just as active and has found her voice, said Morrow.
“I became interested in joining because it would allow me to become knowledgeable about my school and the district as well,” said Amezcua. His only regret? The fact he can’t vote on policy.
“I think a student’s perspective is always a great insight,” said Hernandez. “They are able to be up to date on school events and what other students have in mind, either issues or complaints they have.”
Happenings in school
In Selah, Hoppis is joined by junior Colton Redtfeldt, 17, who also contributes to the Yakima Herald-Republic as part of its Unleashed team of high school writers. The two provide updates to the board, such as school events and accomplishments. They also provide presentations on topics from time to time, such as when the board inquired about student use of district-issued Chromebooks, she added.
“We talk about what’s been going on inside of the schools,” said Hoppis.
Sometimes what they say has an influence on what the district does next.
For instance, Redtfeldt said he once brought up how lunch lines were running out of food options too early during lunch periods. District officials looked into the issue, he said, and the problem was resolved.
“It’s very interesting to learn how the school board works, how different problems are represented within our school district,” added Hoppis. “It’s been interesting to listen in on the new and old issues and policies.”
What takes some time for the students to adjust to is the educational jargon.
“An FTE — what is that?” said Redtfeldt jokingly. (FTE is short for full-time equivalency, a term commonly used to compare and determine workloads or classloads.)
In West Valley, two students — Katie Warner and Jasmine Almaguer — serve on the district’s school board. Board Vice President Chris Brewer praised the teens.
“I think that with our school board, they’ve been doing an excellent job, reporting and taking the info to the ASB (associated student body) and sharing it with the student body,” she said.
Respect is a two-way street, Brewer added. If the students respect the duties and responsibilities of their roles, the adults will respect their input.
Much like the adults, student representatives have to juggle multiple duties at once — such as after-school jobs, athletics and homework.
“It’s really important for students to understand that they’re serving the whole community,” Brewer said. Approaching the end of the school year, she has no complaints.