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Non-Voting Seat: Student School Council members do not have voting rights

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This story is a part Hard lessons, NYCity News Servicesee what urban schools have taught about the pandemic.

When Gabrielle Kayo started attending Brooklyn Tech—one of New York City’s most selective specialized high schools—she noticed that some of her classmates and teachers treated her differently.

Kayo, now a senior, felt that many at the school — which has a predominantly Asian and white student body — “don’t take black students seriously.” Microaggressions were common, she said.

“Black students were treated as ‘different’ and as other students,” Kayo, 17, said in an interview. “It made me feel like a change was needed.”

Kayo threw herself into leadership opportunities at her school, such as serving on the school’s wealth management team and joining the Black Student Union, of which she is now president. She was appointed to the Chancellor’s Student Advisory Council, which provides advice on city-wide educational policy. In her junior year, the board selected her as one of two student representatives on the Education Policy Panel (PEP), the New York City school board.

What’s the catch? Student representatives cannot vote.

Missing element

The push for student participation in school councils is gaining momentum across the country. Over the past five years, eight states added at least one member of their state’s student council, created a student advisory council, or a combination of council membership and an advisory council. Fourteen percent of the nation’s largest school districts now have students serving on their boards. But the vast majority of this youth — 86% of students, according to A 2020 poll – do not have the right to vote.

Students like Kayo said they have to convince adult members of the commission to vote for their cases, creating a system where different generational perspectives can collide. Nationally, the battles over school safety, critical race theory, and sexuality education have reached a fever pitch. In New York, debates over mental health, metal detectors and school admissions policies are at the fore. Students say their perspectives—as the group most directly affected by the education system—must prompt real and concerted action.

“There’s a disconnect between people who vote and people who are actually stakeholders,” Kayo said. “It feels like you go and talk about issues and just cross your fingers that someone actually listens to you.”

Adult PEP members like Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, Manhattan’s president-designate, and Tom Sheppard, vice chair, agree that students should have a voice in policy decisions. Salas-Ramirez said she has seen some of her colleagues reject student proposals when it was clear they were asking to influence them.

“Some of my colleagues in this space are like, ‘Oh, they’re so cute,’ and completely minimize their experience and what they’d like to see,” she said.

The education policy group was created by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002 after he won control of the city’s schools from the state Legislature. Commissioned by advising the city’s schools chancellor on education policy, the group recently expanded to 23 voting members: 13 appointed by the mayor, five appointed by city borough presidents and five by city community education council (CEC) presidents. The state law expanding the group does not provide for additional students.

The commission votes to approve city education department contracts with outside vendors, budget projections and major decisions like school closings. He also votes on system-wide rules for public schools, from cell phones, admissions and attendance to staff hiring and school budgets. But critics say that because the mayor has the power to appoint — and fire — most of its members, the group is more of a rubber stamp for city government than a real way to balance the mayor’s power.

Kayo and Rheana Aktor, a student who served on the commission until August, are perhaps the strongest teenagers in New York City’s public schools. But it was difficult for them to advance on the panel.

The actor, whose seat on the board is still unfilled, has called for more diversity in teachers and better student mental health policies. Cayo focused on curriculum reform so that students see “more of their culture in the books and history that we learn” and expanding the hiring of guidance counselors to help students prepare for college and the job market. Both believe that their ideas failed to translate into real action by PEP.

“If you look at the agenda of the Department of Energy and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, you will see that magnet schools are going full steam ahead, instead of listening to what I and [Akthar] have been saying for the last two years,” Caillot said. “We want more redistribution of the money that goes to these schools to neighboring schools.”

Without the right to vote, student representatives said they have to trust that voting adults are listening carefully to them and considering their ideas. Instead, the students said they often felt like they were being symbolized by the adult participants.

“I never felt that what we were saying could become politics,” Aktar said. “They don’t really want to hear what we really have to say.”

Taking the voices of young people seriously

Jasmine Cobham, a senior at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School in Brooklyn and a youth advocate in Teenagers take responsibilitya citywide coalition of high school students advocating for anti-racist education policies said the tendency to ignore student perspectives extends beyond the panel.

“I feel like a lot of people don’t take students seriously,” Cobham said. “They think, ‘Oh, we’re too young, we don’t know what we’re talking about.’

Kayo and Aktar said the number of student representatives should also increase to create a more diverse student body. The DOE should also provide a full support team for student members, adjust meeting times to accommodate students’ school schedules and promote a teen-friendly meeting environment, they added — proposals supported by Salas-Ramirez and Sheppard, the only PEP members to respond to a request for comments.

Asked about giving student PEP members a voice, the Ministry of Education said in an emailed statement that “student voice should be at the heart of everything we do” and that inviting students into the decision-making process with is “vital”.

“The student voice is invaluable as we work to reimagine our system to better serve the needs of our young people, school staff and community members,” said department spokeswoman Susan Summer. “Giving students a seat at the table is a priority for this administration.”

The state law governing the group is set to expire in less than two years, giving lawmakers an opportunity to make changes before the law’s potential extension. State Sen. John Liu (D-Queens), chairman of the New York State Education Committee, said the Legislature would “continue to monitor” the panel to see “what additional changes, if any, should be considered.”

“Granting student members the right to vote deserves further discussion, which should include how best to reflect the interests of our students while still taking into account their legal status as minors,” Liu wrote in an email.

Ultimately, Cobham said, adults in authority must recognize that students are directly affected by their policies. “We are the ones who are actually at school.”

Lucy Papakhristu contributed.

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