The Education Committee of the Board of Alders convened Monday evening for a seemingly standard review of the procedure to elect two students to the city’s Board of Education.
But what was intended to be a simple discussion quickly evolved into a lively debate concerning the appropriate criteria of eligibility for student candidates. New Haven’s City Charter, revised in a November 2013 referendum, established that two students from the city’s public high schools be elected after their sophomore year to hold two-year, nonvoting terms on the Board.
Tension flared when talk turned to a proposed 2.0 minimum grade point average eligibility requirement for student candidates. Ward 16 Alder Michelle Perez was first to propose an amendment, arguing that the GPA requirement should be 2.5 or higher.
In response, Ward 18 Alder Salvatore Decola vehemently challenged the notion that an academic barrier should exist at all between students and participation in the Board of Education, saying that America is a free country.
“You don’t need a master’s degree in this country to become president. That’s not what America’s about,” he said. “There are still too many walls existing in society.”
In a later interview, Decola recalled that he has seen several students make valuable contributions to Board discussions on such matters as grading policy or school food, although he failed to confirm whether those particular students fell below the proposed GPA floor. 70 percent of New Haven’s students do not attend college, he added, emphasizing the importance of hearing from this constituency.
Other Alders voiced qualified support for setting a minimum GPA requirement, implying a correlation between subpar GPA and inconsistent attendance behavior.
Witnesses summoned to speak before the Alders inclined towards eliminating a rigid GPA floor for student candidates.
Leslie Blatteau, a teacher at the Metropolitan Business Academy, observed that in her school, a student running for a position in the citywide council would need two teacher recommendations and 10 hours in community service, but would not be eliminated from consideration because of GPA. She reminded her audience that external factors such as socioeconomic disparity or health problems could unfairly damage a student’s GPA.
“I know students who have to work 48 hours a week to support their family,” she said. “And you know, they sometimes slip. That’s not to say their active participation is any less valuable.”
Susan Weisselberg, Chief of Wraparound Services at New Haven public schools, who was the first to be summoned to testify about the voting procedure for student candidates, left the meeting with more homework on her plate: to survey the minimum grade requirement for athletes, to sample the eligibility requirements that student councils in various schools held and to summarize the guidelines of schools that omitted a GPA requirement for positions in council.
While the meeting came to an end without a definite resolution on the GPA problem, Weisselberg retained her positive attitude about the Alders’ initiative to include students on the Board of Education.
Even as nonvoting members, students will make a difference on the board, Weisselberg said.
“The Board really concerns itself more with discussions than with voting,” she said. “Having the students’ voice represented at the table is all about introducing the users’ perspective.”
The first student representative, a rising junior, will be elected in June 2015. The other representative will be elected one year later to stagger their terms.