Okanogan High School graduating senior McKenna Roberts plays varsity soccer and loves traveling, photography, music and hiking. She’s also passionate about student rights and representing youth in rural communities. 

For the past two years she’s served as the Eastern Washington student delegate to the Washington State Board of Education. This 16-member group oversees the development and oversight of policies governing K-12 education. Roberts helped inform bills relative to sex education, ethnic studies and emergency waivers for graduation requirements, as well as supporting student mental health.

During the recent legislative session, she and fellow youth board member Pavan Venkatakrishnan of Bellevue proposed a bill and successfully urged legislators to approve voting rights on the board for future student leaders. Previously youth delegates served only in an advisory role, sharing their opinions with the adult voting board members. 

This fall, Roberts is heading east to Barnard College to study political science and human rights on a prelaw track. The Seattle Times Education Lab caught up with her just before her term expired this month to discuss students’ roles in educational decision-making and how policies can be improved by taking diverse student experiences into account.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

What made you interested in applying to be a student delegate to the State Board of Education? 

I think what it really came down to is my passion for advocacy, ‘cause I’ve been doing that since I was pretty young. I joined the Okanogan Youth Leadership Council, which is one of the only ways for teens in rural communities to get involved. We advocated a lot for the Washington sex-ed bill, which was passed. That was my intro to policy in education. … It was definitely a lot of work but worthwhile, for sure.


What is it like being a youth on a state board with mostly adults? What should future youth representatives know about this role? 

It was definitely a difficult transition. I won’t lie about that. The people that work on the board have master’s degrees and Ph.D.s and things like that, and they’ve been studying these issues and working in this field for decades usually. But the importance in having students on the board is lived experience, I think. Just because people went to high school doesn’t mean they really know what it’s been like, especially during a pandemic. Sometimes lived experience, I think, may even outweigh the fancy degrees.

Also, a lot is expected of students on the board. There [are] different committees to join. I was on the legislative committee, because that’s really what [piqued] my interest. That’s how I was able to get involved in so much advocacy in the student-voting bill. But it definitely is a lot of work and a lot of time commitment on top of just being a regular high school student. I’m literally representing a million students in Washington right now and that can be a lot to carry. But everyone on the board is very supportive and really wants the students to take the position by the reins.   

That is a lot to carry. How do you try to keep in touch with and represent such a large swath of students? 

I think that was one of my biggest goals in being on the board early on. I think in the past it was a lot of students speaking from their own experience, which is definitely still valuable. Throughout my time on the board we had partnerships with the Association of Washington Student Leaders. We also created our own special cohort of students that wanted to advise Pavan and I. We also had good partnerships with the Legislative Youth Advisory Council. But I think something that I found a little bit challenging was, How do we reach students that don’t already have their foot in the door with these acronym groups? 

I definitely urge students in the future that are on the board to look beyond the kids that are already involved in these student-voice groups, because oftentimes the people that we need to hear from the most are the ones who don’t have access to … these different student groups. Even though everyone has the best intentions, they can still be exclusionary, even if it’s unintentional. 


Pavan and I have our own unique experiences because he goes to Interlake High School in Bellevue, which is drastically different than Okanogan High School in Okanogan County. So I think having different students on the board definitely helps. Reaching just beyond rural communities to unrepresented communities in general can definitely be a struggle with only two students representing on the board.

How did it feel making history and advocating for student voting rights on the board? What did you learn from that experience? 

I definitely learned how to take rejection. [Laughs] That was something I hadn’t really had to face very much, especially in speaking with people who hold so much power in the state. It was also a confidence-booster to turn some opinions that we didn’t think that we were going to win. [Smiles] I think it still hasn’t sunk in yet that it actually passed. (The bill, SSB 5497, passed with 60 yeas and 38 nays, and takes effect June 9.)