At the May 24 meeting of the Fair Haven Board of Education, a group of nine local citizen members earnestly raised their hands as Sean McNeil, Fair Haven superintendent, administered the oath of office.
In unison, they repeated the New Jersey Required Oath for School Board Members, ending with the traditional promise to “faithfully, justly, and impartially perform all of the duties of that office according to the best of my ability.”
It all sounds pretty standard, except that the “citizens” were middle school students at Fair Haven’s Knollwood School. They went through the exercise of being sworn in by the superintendent as part of a special “student school board” meeting, and role-played being “board members.”
Student school board meetings are conducted by a handful of boards around the state, to better acquaint students with the roles and duties of a school board, and the civic responsibilities of an elected official. Sitting at a board table discussing policies, making motions, and voting on them is also a good way for students to appreciate how their schools are governed.
The Fair Haven student board meeting took place during a regular board meeting, held during the school day in the school gym. Each real board member, as well as the superintendent and the business administrator, had a student shadowing him or her during the course of the meeting. The participating students were leaders in the school’s student council. The students conducted roll call voting (of the real board members) on items such as a new math curriculum and a motion to adopt new policies and regulations; and heard presentations from building principals and other administrators. At the conclusion of the meeting it was a student who brought down the gavel in the place of Bruce Padula, board president, to end the gathering.
“This is something that our mayor and borough council have been doing for years,” Padula said. “When we were planning our yearly schedule we thought, ‘why don’t we do the same thing,’ these are our students and they should see how we operate and enact the policies that govern their schools.”
The experience, noted Padula, was valuable for students. “The students got an opportunity to see how the board operates; how we deliberate; and how decisions are made. Our government systems only work when the individuals they govern have faith in the system,” he said. “Unfortunately, as a nation, we are seeing an overall diminution in faith in government. This exercise, we hope, shows our students how we work together, how we debate, how we compromise, and how we reach consensus, all with the goal of providing the best education possible for our children.”
Fair Haven is likely to continue the practice of having student school board meetings, Padula added. “I would like to see more student involvement and learning about how the process works, how agendas are created, how committees work and review matters before they get on the agenda,” he said.
The Howell Township Board of Education had a similar student school board day, coincidentally also held on May 24. Howell’s program was also inspired by an exercise the district has been doing for several years with seventh-grade students and local municipal officials, where students stand in for elected municipal officials during a mock council meeting.
The district decided to have Howell’s fifth-grade students, who study local government, take part in the exercise. “The idea came out of a discussion we had when one of our board members, MaryRose Malley, brought up the idea as a way for students to gain a better understanding of the civic responsibilities and the role of the board, and to give the students a chance to have their voice heard,” said Tim O’Brien, Howell’s board president.
The district held an essay competition for fifth-grade students, asking what policies they would like to see implemented if they were board members. Before the essay contest, administrators and board members visited each of the schools and talked to the students about the whole project. “We held an assembly with all the fifth-grade students,” Malley said. “We introduced ourselves and presented a summary of what the board of education does and what each committee does, and helped them come up with ideas for their essays.”
The student essays ranged from the fanciful to the thoughtful. “One kid proposed we build a swimming pool,” said Joseph Isola, Howell superintendent, adding that other suggestions were more reasonable. “One student talked about having more choices for electives in the school, and several talked about harassment, intimidation and bullying.”
Three students from each of the five schools that hold fifth-grade classes – or 15 students – were selected to take part. They filled the roles of board members, board president, superintendent, business administrator, three assistant superintendents, and board attorney.
The Howell administrators and board members, mindful that much of the work of a school board takes place in committees, structured a day-long experience for the students. The district developed a board meeting agenda for the students based on the issues that had been brought up in the essays, and developed four student board committees – education; policy; safety and advocacy; and operations. Each student was assigned to participate on two committees. The day took place at the district administrative headquarters.
“We started with a working breakfast meeting, and the board president greeted them and introduced them to what would be happening that day,” said Isola. “Then they broke into two committees that met simultaneously to discuss issues, had lunch, then broke into two more committees.” Board members helped guide the students, as did administrators. Howell’s board attorney donated his services for the day to help the student mock school board. “The interaction at the committee level was awesome,” said Isola. “At one point we were switching rooms, and I went into a room and one of the kids said, ‘Mr. Isola, I move that we take a nap. This is hard work.’ ”
The superintendent’s fifth-grade student counterpart, William Daley, took on several ceremonial chief school administrator jobs, such as co-signing a few thank you letters to principals, and calling one principal to congratulate her and thank her for a program at her school. The principal had been primed to expect the call, responding with a “Thank you, Superintendent Daley, for noticing our good work.” The student “superintendent” was grinning from ear to ear after the call, Isola said.
After the committee meetings, the students were bused to their schools and went home. They returned later to hold a public “board meeting” from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., prior to the real board of education meeting. There they conducted business on the agenda, as any board would, and the committees gave reports. According to Isola, the students were a bit intimidated by appearing on the dais before a crowd, but performed admirably. “They seemed a bit shy, which is understandable,” he said. “It was a full house.”
The student meeting had a real consequence: at the student meeting, the “members” approved a motion to make the student board meeting day an annual event. That evening, board member Malley moved the same motion, which was adopted by the Howell Township Board of Education.
“It was a very worthwhile experience,” Malley said. “The students were very professional, and took it very seriously. They sat down at the table and discussed the agendas and talked about the issues. They learned a lot about what is involved, and that there are lots of things that have to be considered when you make a decision. It made me so proud as a board member, to see how the students interacted with each other and discussed the topics.”
Students weren’t the only participants who benefitted. “Students learned a lot, but so did the board and the administrators,” said Isola. He reports that next year Howell will consider holding the program earlier in the year (“May is a very busy month”) and will try to better prepare the kids for an actual public board meeting, by having them attend a regular board meeting or watch a video segment of one.
Howell’s board president, O’Brien, said he was very pleased with the district’s experience, too. “Students were engaged, and they stepped up and operated as board members, asking questions and being involved in the committee work. The teamwork they displayed was really something. It was a great opportunity for them to learn,” he said.
Many of New Jersey’s school boards have non-voting student representatives who report to the board about what’s going on in the schools and provide the student perspective, but typically those regular meeting attendees are high-school students. The experience of the Fair Haven and Howell Township boards demonstrates that elementary school students are capable of–and enthusiastic about – learning more about boards of education. With the new school year approaching, more school districts may consider starting similar programs.
And who knows what the future holds? Remember, those students on the mock board are only a few years away from being 18, and eligible to run for a real seat on the school board themselves.