This fall, the community can expect three new members to join the Seattle School Board during public meetings, all much younger than the average board member. In fact, they have yet to graduate from high school.
For the first time, Seattle Public Schools will have students sitting on the board as nonvoting members beginning in September. It’s part of an ongoing effort to include student voices in the decision-making process. The three high schoolers were introduced to the board in late June, and they’ll serve during the next school year.
Although student board members won’t be able to vote, they can ask questions of the staff and share their ideas on agenda items.
“For me, I’ve been in SPS since kindergarten and had quite the journey through thick and thin,” said Luna Crone-Baron, a student board member and an incoming junior at The Center School. “I was excited and wanted to take this on — and I felt I needed to take this on because I saw an absolute need for this kind of position.”
The student board member positions are coming at the end of a school year notable for the amount of student organizing, protests, and pleas for stronger COVID-19 protocols and more comprehensive sexual harassment policies. Local students have been part of a nationwide youth organizing movement, and two Seattle student groups were created this past year: the Seattle Student Union and Students Against Sexual Assault.
District staff and board members have been working to bring students onto the board for nearly two years, said Brandon Hersey, School Board president.
“As a former teacher, I know the value of student voice in decision-making, and especially in a place like Seattle where students held us accountable all throughout the pandemic and even before,” he said. “I really want to make sure there are consistent opportunities for us to hear from students in terms of how we develop and create policy.”
Crone-Baron and her fellow student board members Nassira Hassan and Jia Li Yuan (who goes by Jenna) will be sitting alongside elected board members and will rotate their attendance at meetings. Meetings last between two and four hours on average, and students will be paid $17.27 an hour, not to exceed 20 hours per month. (The elected board members make about $50 for every day they work on behalf of the district; their compensation is capped at $4,800 a year.)
“I know, for a lot of kids, they feel like their voices go unheard,” said Hassan, an incoming senior at Chief Sealth International High School. “Especially me being an African American Muslim girl, I felt that exact same feeling.”
Some of the topics the three incoming student board members hope to tackle: safety in buildings, sexual assault prevention, student mental health and funding inequities.
Improving communication and transparency between the district and families is a priority, said Yuan, an incoming senior at Franklin High School. She recalled the various closures and shelter-in-place orders this past school year when Franklin was threatened by violence.
“I was pretty confused because, at first, I didn’t know why our school was shut down,” she said. “We knew it was about safety concerns and threats but didn’t know the details and we want to know the details of how decisions are made.”
In order to be chosen for the positions, students had to go through an application and interview process, get references, and create a video explaining why they wanted to be a student board member. Every school year there will be three, five, or seven student board members.
Having student board members isn’t a new idea. School districts across the country have added students to the dais.
But in most school districts, students don’t vote, and whether student voices will influence policy is up to those elected.
Student board member efforts in the Los Angeles Unified School District, one of the largest districts in the country, failed to empower youth, a 2018 study done by California State University, Los Angeles, researchers discovered. Although likely not intentional, the study found the system blocked student participation and tokenized one student out of hundreds of thousands, “while providing this individual little opportunity to have a say in decision-making processes.”
Hersey said he is optimistic that he and other board members will take student opinions and asks into consideration when making policy decisions. The reaction from most board members was, “we should have been doing this five or 10 years ago,” he said.
And it goes beyond highlighting student opinion, Hersey added. It’s also a chance at mentorship from board members.
“I’ve never been an outgoing, confident person so I really wanted to challenge myself and step out of my comfort zone,” Yuan said. “Doing this can also help the community and help the SPS district so I wanted to apply to give back to my community and challenge and improve myself.”
Learning about how the School Board and district function was a motivating factor to apply, Crone-Baron said, but what she is really looking forward to is making sure board members go beyond listening and act on what students are asking for.
For Hassan, it’s not only about being heard, it’s about the diverse representation of the entire study body. She said she hopes to contribute to building a school system where students will feel safe and comfortable in their learning environments, regardless of race and religious beliefs.