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There’s a new member at board of education meetings this school year, and we’re not talking about that surprise write-in candidate or newbie who ousted an entrenched incumbent.

No, this is someone of a younger variety: Every school district and charter school with a high school is now required to have a student representative on the board of education as a result of legislation  Gov. Phil Murphy signed in January 2022.

Under the law, each board was required to include at least one student representative beginning with the 2022-2023 school year, who is a nonvoting member. “The student body may elect or appoint the student representative to the board, in a process to be determined by the student body. The student representative shall serve for a one school year term,” according to the legislation.

Districts that have more than one high school should rotate students on a yearly basis, according to the legislation.

While the law only requires one student rep to serve on the board, some school districts have opted to have two student representatives. Also, while some boards of education have only just welcomed a student representative, it’s worth noting that for some school districts, they’ve been valued members for some time.

Student representatives to boards of education do not attend the executive sessions that boards hold, nor do they have access to confidential information about students or staff. 

An Innovative Approach in Jersey City In Jersey City, the board of education has benefited from having a student representative since 2018.

After Mussab Ali was elected to the board in 2017 at age 20, he suggested adding a student representative, which fellow board members embraced. Ali was elected by his colleagues to be board president in January 2021. At age 23, he was the youngest to ever serve the board in that position.

Just months later, however, he was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma and underwent chemotherapy for six months. Meanwhile, he was in his first year at Harvard Law School attending virtually. As he was still undergoing cancer treatment, he made the difficult decision not to run for re-election. Today, he’s been cancer free for more than a year, expects to graduate in May 2023 and plans to do direct legal aid work – although he adds, “I may pursue public service through elected office again in the future.”

“For me, my campaign was always about providing a different perspective, so I saw my election as supporting that,” he said. “I ran on the idea that student voices matter, and we need their perspective.”

In 2021, after he became president of the board during the middle of the pandemic, Ali explored empowering the student representative on a larger scale. The board ultimately allocated $100,000 as a line item in the budget, which enabled students at its eight high schools to decide how to spend $10,000 each to improve their respective schools.

The remaining $20,000 was left for the student representative to decide what to do with for a districtwide project. “I saw this as having a dual purpose,” he said. “Not only did it give students ownership over what to change, but it also invited direct feedback from students on what was happening in their schools. Participatory budgeting provides a way for everyone to have access.”

At the eight high schools, students initially suggested improving the bathrooms with their funds, but the board addressed that through the facilities budget. This allowed students to design creative initiatives with the money, including a Zen room, a new scoreboard and other items to support school spirit; outdoor furniture and waste receptacles; jerseys for the entire student body at one school; a bike rack and picnic tables; money to support a school hall of fame and other initiatives.

How to spend the remaining $20,000 for the districtwide project fell to Miriam Tawfiles, now a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is pursuing a career in STEM. She served as Jersey City’s 2021-2022 student representative.

She sought the position as a junior at Infinity Institute after one of her teachers urged her to get involved. Her goal, she said, was to bridge a disconnect between what students were often talking about and what was being addressed at board meetings.

She was chosen by the district’s citywide student council, which consists of one representative from each of the high schools and two advanced middle schools. “Each high school gets to nominate one candidate to run for the student representative position,” she explained. “Every high school had a candidate, and we all gave an election speech via Zoom.”

Serving on the board, however, did not turn out to be what she expected.

“A lot of people warned me against this position because they said a lot of members would not be open to listening to a student,” she said. “But Mussab was super helpful … all the board members were super helpful. They were super open to hearing all of my ideas.”

Tawfiles took her role seriously, lobbying for free period products to be placed in women’s restrooms. “Jersey City is not the wealthiest city, and it’s important to have that,” she said. 

Tawfiles and the board teamed up with The Flow Initiative, which seeks to “create a better world for girls, women, and people who menstruate by eradicating period poverty.” Gina Verdibello, a Jersey City trustee, has been a longtime supporter of the organization and was critical in making that connection, Tawfiles said.

Infinity Institute piloted a program where period products were placed in student bathrooms and period “goody bags” were made available for pickup at the main office. A few other community schools also introduced the program, Tawfiles said.

Tawfiles also helped spearhead the Gay Street Alliance, a districtwide initiative that she worked on in conjunction with current board president Gerald Lyons. “It was held at Infinity, but other schools were invited,” she said, adding that there was a virtual option to attend. “It was to promote equity in our schools and just to promote everyone’s differences and acceptance in our schools. We had guest speakers from the STEM field, and Mr. Lyons came as a guest speaker.”

How to spend the $20,000 entailed a lot of thought and conversations with her peers, Tawfiles said. Ultimately, she presented the idea of a STEM Mentorship Program to the board.

Her proposal entailed having the district’s juniors and seniors serve as mentors for younger students, taking field trips to the district’s elementary and middle schools to perform experiments and get their younger peers thinking. “A lot of people were interested, and we actually piloted it in the sixth-grade class of one of our chemistry teachers,” she said. They performed a chemical experiment, highlighting the mechanics of a chemical reaction, she said.

Moving forward, Tawfiles hopes the mentorship program can help reverse what she sees as a lack of creativity among some students. “I want to get out of that cycle and create more innovative, brighter thinkers,” she said, noting that the $20,000 – much of which had not yet been spent – would go to a designated teacher at each of the high schools to run the program to pay for field trips and supplies. 

Tawfiles’ term as the student representative on the board began in March 2021 and was supposed to end in December, but the board extended her term to June 2022, so she could get a fuller experience as her service coincided with the pandemic and virtual meetings.

Getting the chance to meet in person was “a really exciting atmosphere” and “completely different,” she said. “I really loved being in person, and I’m glad my entire term was not over Zoom,” she said.

As to how Jersey City navigated the pandemic, Tawfiles said she and most of her fellow students wanted schools to reopen.  “For the other side, the pandemic was still going on and not everyone was able to be vaccinated and not everyone wanted to be vaccinated,” she said. “But as a student, I knew I wanted to be back in school, and at a certain point, I had already been vaccinated, but I had to keep in mind that not all of my peers were. So, it was interesting to see those two perspectives.”

Her board service also helped her better understand the legislative process of the board.

“A lot of times, we complained that we don’t have X, Y and Z,” she said. “Or this high school has this and why don’t we?”

She learned that it was not necessarily the board of education’s fault – often it boiled down to funding. “It was a learning process the entire way,” she said. “It also helped me connect with other students who I may not have otherwise been in contact with.”

If student representatives want to get the most out of the experience, however, she urges them to connect with the students they are representing “because it means nothing if you are just doing it to boost your own resume.”

She added that while it’s great to have ideas, student representatives must keep in mind that  “not everything is going to happen and not everything is going to be implemented.”

To get the full value of a student representative’s service, full-voting board members must take their insights seriously, Ali said. “I think people often undermine young people generally,” he said. “We should treat them as equals. They are there to represent the views of a group that is traditionally not represented.”

Having a student representative on the board has been great for Jersey City, Verdibello said. “Their input is so important – they have a different perspective than we do,” she said.

While the current budget does not include funds that the student representative can determine how to use, both Ali and Tawfiles said they hope it is something the board will consider again if possible.

Lots of Interest in West New York When Adam Parkinson, president of the West New York Board of Education in Hudson County and the New Jersey 2022-2023 School Board Member of the Year, joined school staff and other officials at an assembly to tell sophomores and juniors at Memorial High School that they could apply to be a student representative on the board of education, the response was positive, he said.

“There was lots of engagement,” he said, noting that two student reps were picked to serve for the 2022-2023 school year in response to the law. “As soon as we started telling them about it, there were kids giving us solutions to problems.”

At the assembly, school leaders emphasized that student reps must do a lot of listening. “We are not elected to figure out problems – we are elected to figure out solutions – and their role as a student representative is to help come up with solutions,” Parkinson said.

Two students were selected to serve as student representatives: Bradley Manso, a 16-year-old junior; and Ashley Escano, a 17-year-old senior.

Escano saw an opportunity to make a difference.

“I like Memorial High School, but like everything in life, there is room for improvement,” she said. “So, from a student perspective, I felt like I could present ideas and concerns.”

Manso also saw a potential payoff with getting involved.

“I liked the idea because I felt like students might be scared to bring their concerns to the board of education and going to a meeting and speaking in front of them,” he said. “It’s different when you are a student representative. It’s easier for them to bring you any concerns.”

Already, the student reps have heard from students about items they want addressed. 

For instance, Escano shared that one student emailed her to let her know she is a band member, and she doesn’t think it’s fair that there is an honor society for the school’s dance academy and regular arts society but not for band members and the music department. “She asked if I could present that to the board … I am working on that,” she said.

Manso hopes to help bilingual students feel more comfortable in the district, noting that it has a program that takes them on trips to the town hall, police station and other sites. “It helps them feel comfortable in our town,” he said.

So far, Parkinson has been impressed by the passion the student representatives have shown in improving the district.

“They have tried to find out ways to help not just the 2,000 kids in the high school but for all 8,000 students in the district,” he said, noting that both also attended elementary school in the district. 

Both student representatives started attending meetings in July, Parkinson said. “We weren’t waiting until September,” he said. “The school year for us starts in July. I wasn’t sure what to expect with student reps, but these two kids in particular in those summer months went beyond my expectations.”

While the board of education had some input in which two students would serve on the board of education, it did not “pick” them, Parkinson said. “The high school handled it, and the principal held a forum to see who had interest,” he said. 

When the pool was narrowed down, the district superintendent and Parkinson arrived at the school one day unannounced and called the finalists to the principal’s office for individual interviews, Parkinson said. 

“I just got called down out of nowhere one day,” Manso said. “Once I got down there, I was asked a series of questions.”

Escano, who hopes one day to be an attorney, was unfazed. “I think that was the perfect opportunity to elaborate and express what I had in mind – the whole approach and process – I really liked it. When they called us down, I just spoke whatever came to mind and was not nervous.”

Throughout the process, Parkinson was impressed with Manso and Escano. “I could tell they were talking from the heart – they genuinely wanted to move the school forward,” he said.

In addition to trying to help the district solve problems, the students see other benefits that go along with being a student rep.

“It has given me the opportunity to publicly speak – I really have the opportunity to learn and lessen that fear of speaking in public,” said Manso, who as a volunteer EMT may pursue a career in the medical field or perhaps in business administration. “Also, how we talk and network with other people. We do a lot of that – we meet a lot of new people.”

Escano, who wants to become a lawyer, said she feels the position “has given me a glimpse of how the town runs, how the money runs and how everything works.” She added, “The voting part shows how everyone has a part when it comes time to make a decision – everyone has a say.”

The board meetings follow a set process, with agenda items in a specific order, Escano said. “Everyone speaks, and then eventually we speak – we say anything we need to say,” she said.

So far, everything is working great, Parkinson said.

“I feel like it works very well because I have grown in a short amount of time to trust their opinions,” he said. “I know they are both levelheaded, and they try to come up with solutions that make sense – that says a lot about these two people.”

He added that both student reps have quickly realized that a lot happens in between board meetings as well. “I’ve said it before, if you are going to be a good board member, it is going to take a whole lot of time,” Parkinson said. 

As to how they communicate with fellow students, Escano noted she is on the student council and very involved with the student body. “I email them and let them know that if they have any concerns, I’ll present them to the board,” she said. “I also use social media.”

Both take their duties seriously, even if it means staying at meetings late into night. “After the initial session of a meeting, we can leave, but we feel so involved with the board, that we like to hear what the outcome is,” Manso said. “We actually really enjoy doing this.”

They also are the first students to know about certain things, such as when Memorial High School joined the “High Schools of the Future Program” with Liberty Science Center and Bank of America, a new two-year pilot program that will allow juniors to take part in an accelerated, two-year professional job training program, including in the STEM and cybersecurity areas. Students who successfully complete the program will also have the opportunity to work for Bank of America focusing on emerging technologies. (James J. Ferris High School in Jersey City is also participating in the program.)

Escano, who has always been involved in sports and various activities, said she’s learned how to manage her time. “For me, it is not really a struggle,” she said. “I know how to keep myself organized.”

Watching the student representatives at work has reminded Parkinson of why he sought a seat on the board in the first place.

“I am in an interesting position, as I joined my school board when I was 18 and had just finished high school, he said. “Now, I’m the youngest member on the school board but the most senior school board member.” He added, “It is refreshing to see students sitting at the dais because we always make decisions based on what we think is best for the students and what will impact student achievement. To have literally in front of you two students who sit on the dais with us – they are a reminder of why we do what we do.”

The only regret Parkinson has is that the board did not explore adding student representatives before the governor signed the legislation. “In just the few months they have been on, it has been such a positive experience,” Parkinson said. “I think it is something that should be embraced.”

From Student Representative to Full Voting Member If you want to see how serving as a student representative can lead to a higher level of service, just look at Nicholas Seppy, a sophomore majoring in political science at Stockton University.

Seppy serves on the Egg Harbor Board of Education in Atlantic County, having won a seat only a couple years after serving as a student representative on the same board from 2019-2020. After running unsuccessfully in 2020, he won a seat on the board in 2021 at 19 years old.

Seppy became interested in being a student representative on the board after failing to win a seat on the student council. “At some point, someone told me there is a position where you sit on the board of education. You are not a voting member, but you sit with them and go through meetings and are some form of a member as a student,” he said.

What an intriguing idea, he thought.

Such a position would be very special, as it would provide him with a vantage point that most students never have, he thought. But he had to wait until he was a senior to seek the position, as per the rules in his district, he said. Ultimately, he joined the board as one of two student representatives.

Seppy has no doubt that his experience as a student representative, which took place mostly during the pandemic, helped him win a full seat on the board.

“One of my running points was I had been there for a year already,” he said. 

As a student representative, he had to sit and do a lot of listening to “get the lay of the land,” he said. Sometimes, a meeting would draw only a handful of people while other times, the room would be packed with more than 100 people, he said. 

“It’s a great way to build a young person’s experience in front of the public,” he said. “Not everyone who does it wants to run for office.”

With that said, serving as a student representative can be a great introduction to help a student understand how politics and the democratic process works, Seppy said.

Perhaps the most daunting part of being a student representative is having to speak in front of the public, Seppy said. 

He thinks the new law will encourage more young people to engage in civics. “Your voice is no longer the voice of an outsider, but you have to manage your voice,” he said. “It is a great thing, a great opportunity for young people to speak.”

As a student representative on the board, Seppy gave a report to the public every month – sometimes speaking even more than full-voting members, he said. “As a board member, your function I would say is more mechanical compared to being a student rep, which is more of a presentational position,” he said. During his talks, he tried to deliver a report instead of opinions that didn’t reflect the overall student body, he said.

To help student representatives succeed, Seppy recommends having them speak after the superintendent or another high-level administrator delivers a report to the public. That works well in Egg Harbor and allows a student representative to “source off” of that report, he said. 

Put the student representative early on the agenda, which will help them cultivate their speaking skills in front of a larger audience (when more people are in attendance) while also allowing them to leave at a decent hour, he suggested.

As far as recommendations for students, Seppy urged them to keep their political views out of the fray. “You are aiding your fellow students and teachers in the affairs of the community – it is not a political match,” he said.

Having a student representative on a board provides distinct advantages for both the board and the student. Boards benefit from the useful insights of their student rep. Students learn how boards and school districts operate and receive a lesson in civics and participatory democracy. And all the students in the district have an opportunity to make their views and voices heard by the body that governs the school district. 

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.