In addition to the city’s mayor and aldermen, New Haven voters will decide the role of students in educational policymaking when they take to the polls on Nov. 5.
A fundamental restructuring of the Board of Education will be on the ballot, turning two of the seats into elected positions and adding two non-voting student members. If the measure passes, those four will serve in addition to the mayor and four mayoral appointees. Currently, the board has no student representatives and is comprised entirely of individuals chosen by the mayor. The initiative is part of the city’s charter reform, which New Haven undertakes at least every 10 years.
“We talk a lot about kids being first and wanting to serve the kids,” Hillhouse High School principal Kermit Carolina said. “The best way I can think to serve kids is to find out which services they need. I can’t think of a better way to hear their voices then to have them be members of the Board of Education.”
The present construction of the board, which includes the mayor and six members appointed by him, has been criticized by city leaders and education activists alike for two primary reasons: excessive mayoral power and lack of student perspectives.
The board voted to include students as non-voting members two years ago, but those positions never materialized. At an August board meeting, Board President Carlos Torre cited difficulties in developing a fair application process for the positions to explain the delay. He said he hopes to have students on the board soon, regardless of the charter revision vote.
“Students need to be involved with their education,” said Ward 20 Alderwoman Delphine Clyburn, who served on the charter revision committee. “It’s time that our young people get involved with everything that has to do with their lives.”
Student participation on the board is not without precedent: Two high school seniors now hold one-year terms on the state’s Board of Education. One of those seats is currently filled by East Haven resident and Sound School senior Jake Colavolpe. According to Colavolpe, board members have embraced him as a representative of the state’s student body and take his presence seriously.
“I speak just as much as the other members of the board, who are incredibly receptive to the ideas that I have put forward,” Colavolpe told the News. “I am serving as a voice for all Connecticut students, and strive to bring the concerns of not just myself, but also those of students in New Haven and the state, to the board.”
Colavolpe was awarded the seat after undergoing a rigorous application process that included a personal essay, three teacher recommendations and two rounds of interviews. He said that he has spoken briefly with New Haven Superintendent Garth Harries ’95 about the representative selection process and that Harries plans to model New Haven’s on the state’s. Colavolpe suggested that the applicants should go through an interview with the full board, as well as an interview with Harries.
According to Carolina, the prospective positions have garnered significant student interest at Hillhouse High, and student leaders have already approached him to discuss the possibility of serving on the board.
Carolina said that although he does not have strong opinions on the specifics of the selection process, he expects the two student members to be selected from the citywide student council. The council includes students from every high school across the city.
In addition to added student input, supporters say the revision be a step toward democratizing the board, which many view as controlled by Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. Should the measure pass, the two elected officials will each come from one of two distinct districts in the city.
“One of the most frequent complaints I hear from parents is that the school system is not responsive to them,” mayoral candidate Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 said. “The Board of Ed is somewhat buffered from public pressure because it’s appointed by the mayor entirely.”
The current president of the board is Carlos Torre, a former associate dean of Yale College.