Columbia Board of Education should include student representatives


With eyes focused on the speaker, the assembly of community members listen to a parent voice his qualms with special education in Columbia Public Schools on Sept. 9. The presenter spoke about his children’s struggles with disabilities. Photo by Ana Manzano

Will Cover

In Civics Studies classes students learn of the foundation of a fair democratic government: representation. One of the driving factors behind the Revolutionary War was the colonists’ resentment that they were excluded stakeholders from the British Parliament, forced to conform to the Crown’s policies with no substantive way to affect them. Ever since, American government at all levels has aimed to accurately represent the people it serves.

But when it comes to one of the most consequential government bodies for a high schooler, the school board, students remain unrepresented. This tradition is not only unfair to students and contradictory to CPS’ organizational goals but also misses out on valuable potential insight. To rectify this oversight, the Columbia Board of Education should include student representatives.

CPS lays out the district’s core values on its website. The exclusion of students from the board, however, runs contrary to the principles espoused. For instance, collaboration is listed as a value, which is impossible to fully achieve without giving students real representation.

The second value contradicted by not allowing students a seat on the board is trust. Additionally, one of the more popular justifications for not adopting the policy nation-wide is students can’t be trusted with that responsibility.

For those who contend students would not take the opportunity seriously, a phenomenon named the Pygmalion Effect counters their point.

“The work of Rosenthal and Jacobsen, shows that expectations influence student performance,” according to Duquesne University. Positive expectations influence performance positively, and negative expectations influence performance negatively.”

By only giving students limited ways to influence policy decisions, thus treating them as undeserving of greater representation, the board causes students to sink to the low expectations set. Setting higher expectations through the opportunity for more meaningful involvement would result in students rising to the occasion as they have in countless other districts.

Federal Hocking High School (FHHS) is one of the lowest income school districts in all of Ohio, yet it sees high proficiency in state testing, which the district attributes to increasing students’ voice in government. The Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an academic non-profit based in Kentucky, released a report that found 85 percent of FHHS’ students are economically disadvantaged, but 91 percent are proficient in reading and 90 percent in math.

The authors of the report write, “Superintendent George Wood credits student voice, asserting ‘change has to begin with the perceived needs of those to whom the change is going to happen.’ Students run all student activities and serve as full members on all school governance bodies, even participating in personnel decisions.”

Within FHHS, increasing student buy-in even shows a statistical link with increased performance. Former San Francisco State Professor Mark Phillips writes for Edutopia, a website devoted to advocating for innovation in K-12 education, that FHHS saw the number of college-bound students grow from 20 percent to 70 percent as student involvement increased.

Additionally, greater student involvement would aid specific classroom goals. By giving students an involved role in the democratic process, CPS would enable students to more fully apply their lessons from Civics Studies classes to their outside life and the district would produce more civically aware and active adults. For instance, Montgomery County, Maryland, a district with more than 160,000 students, consistently sees over 80 percent of the students eligible to vote for their student representative to the school board vote. The benefits to such a change, however, do not just belong to students. Students experience school differently from teachers, administrators and parents, and as a result they notice problems and come up with solutions that might not cross adults’ minds.

The aforementioned Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence conducted an audit at a Kentucky junior high school in an area considering including students in their school board. The survey found that “although not a single adult commented on bullying in his or her survey responses or interviews, two-thirds of the students complained of an ineffective discipline policy, resulting in a major bullying problem.”

In Montgomery County, Eric Guerci, a student member of the school board, brought attention to matters that would not have otherwise been considered. As Guerci put it to Bethesda Magazine, “I’m there to remind board members that what’s comfortable or not comfortable for adults is not necessarily the same for students.”

Although students are able to come to the school board with any proposals they have, in reality this is far easier said than done. Often times it is difficult for students to approach the board members, regardless of how important they think their policy is.

RBHS junior Shruti Gautam came up with the idea of having free feminine hygiene products in girls’ bathrooms at CPS high schools for a project in her Civics Studies class. One of her teachers pointed out the lack of an easy way for students’ ideas to get serious consideration among administration, warning her implementation would be unlikely.

Gautam was willing to bring her plan forward and fiercely advocate for it only because she already felt comfortable speaking with administration. Gautam said if she had not had experience with the administration before, it may have taken her much longer to try to get the word out, and she likely would have been far more easily dissuaded.

There may be countless other students who have had policy ideas that slipped through the cracks because currently there is no easy connection for them and the board.

Adding student representatives to the board would increase the ability of students to effectively communicate their suggestions and solutions to problems. Additionally, student representatives would serve as apt liaisons between the board and other students with valuable recommendations.

For as long as students remain unrepresented, CPS will be unable to fulfill its values. Furthermore, this exclusion of students worsens all policies made for our district and runs contrary to the democratic nature embedded within the board as a government body. CPS should immediately remedy this, expanding to include student representatives, giving students the substantive say in the process they deserve.

Do you think school boards should include students? Let us know in the comments below.