Petition advocates student representation

The petition calling for student representation on the New Haven Board of Education is supported by Ward 1 Alderman Sarah Eidelson ’12.
The petition calling for student representation on the New Haven Board of Education is supported by Ward 1 Alderman Sarah Eidelson ’12. Photo by Isaac Stanley-Becker.

If a collection of city lawmakers, youth advocates, parents and students have their way, two New Haven Public Schools students may soon sit on the Board of Education.

In advance of Tuesday’s charter review commission meeting, the Citywide Youth Coalition is circulating a petition calling for student representation on the school board as a potential change to the city’s charter. Boasting 87 signatures as of Sunday evening, the petition asks Ward 8 Alderman Michael Smart, who heads the 15-member Board of Aldermen-appointed commission, to include this change in his recommendations to the full Board of Aldermen in May. At that time, the board will decide whether to put the changes to referendum in November. After four public hearings, the commission will begin deciding Tuesday which changes, if any, it will ask the board to put on the ballot.

Supporters of the petition, including Ward 1 Alderman Sarah Eidelson ’12, claim the change will ensure accountability to students, allowing youth representatives to have a say in decisions regarding curriculum, credit requirements and teacher evaluations. The request is part of a broader discussion of the composition of the board, as some residents and city officials are calling for elections in place of mayoral appointments to choose board members. Both Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 and Connecticut State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, who are emerging front-runners in the mayoral race, have come out in support of a hybrid board, which would feature both elected and appointed members.

Citywide Youth Coalition Executive Director Rachel Heerema said she also supports a hybrid board, though she added an extra stipulation. As the head of a network of youth service providers, Heerema said reform must include student representation.

“The quality of education most impacts the students who are currently being educated, and it’s their right to have a voice,” she said. “There’s no other recourse because they are not of age and can’t vote. Simply having elected members on the board is not enough.”

Since the coalition decided in January to make its pitch for student representation as part of the charter review process, Heerema said she has been working to galvanize support for the petition, collaborating with youth empowerment organizations, such as Elm City Dream and Youth Unleashed, to rally students and parents behind the petition.

As outlined by the petition, two students would be elected in staggered two-year terms by their fellow students. The aim is to make young people “partners in their education,” states the petition.

Their inability to vote, though, may prevent students from acting as full voting members on the board, Heerema added. Instead, they might have to serve as advisers. According to the Connecticut Association of School Boards, board members must be registered voters.

Eidelson, who chairs the Board of Aldermen’s youth committee, signed the petition on Saturday and said she hopes the charter review commission will move forward with the recommendation. Together with her colleagues on the Board of Aldermen, Eidelson has directed the commission to consider 15 issues in their charter review process, including term lengths for aldermen, a civilian review board for the police and Board of Education composition. The specific question of student representatives was not on that list of 15 issues.

Eidelson said she sees seats for students on the board as an essential part of making the board “more democratic and more representative.”

“Students know best what’s happening in the schools,” she added. “When we assume that New Haven residents don’t have the skills or the maturity to lead just because they’re young, we really sell them and the city short.”

Heerema said students are fully capable of representing their classmates on the board, adding that young people sit on school boards in other parts of Connecticut and across the country. She cited Hamden, West Haven and the Connecticut State Board as successful examples of involving students in school board decision-making.

A junior at Common Ground High School, Capria Marks, said she would be interested in being a student representative. In the past week, she has been working to raise awareness surrounding the petition.

“When adults are making decisions about the youth, they need to have opinions coming from us,” Marks said.

In the past, Board of Education members have defended an appointed board by pointing to the risk of politicization that comes with elections. In January, Mayor John DeStefano Jr., Assistant Superintendent of Schools Garth Harries ’95 and Board of Education President Carlos Antonio Torre all told the News that elections would result in vested interests and divisions among members.

“We need to carefully consider the impact that politicizing the school board could have on the School Change Initiative in New Haven,” DeStefano said.

Heerema responded to concerns of politicization by criticizing DeStefano’s attentiveness to the state of education in the city, saying his tenure “indicates that we have needed more direction, accountability and direct democracy surrounding education in New Haven.”

This week may determine the success of that prospect, Heerema said, as the commission’s Tuesday meeting determines “which issues are on their radar and which aren’t.”

The charter review commission must submit its recommendations to the Board of Aldermen by May 13.

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