Just like her fellow Howard County Board of Education members, Abisola Ayoola spends hours each week reviewing school policies and reports, attending meetings and listening to the concerns of her constituents.
There’s one key difference: Ayoola, 16, is a junior at Wilde Lake High School and the student member of the school board. Elected on May 4 by the county’s middle and high school students, she will spend the next year representing them among seven adult peers.
“Most of the job is being able to ask important questions and being able to notice things that other people might not pick up on,” Ayoola said. “My main task is to be able to identify how certain policies will affect students.”
In the Howard County Public School System, the student member votes on all issues except those pertaining to budgets, personnel or other restricted matters. Not everyone is happy about the power held by someone so young.
On Aug. 24, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled against an attempt to limit the voting power of students in Howard County. The lawsuit, filed in county Circuit Court by two parents, argued that seating a minor elected by minors to serve on the board and make policy decisions violated the state constitution.
The appeals court ruling was a huge victory for Maryland students who want to protect their voting rights, which vary across the state’s 24 local school boards.
Ayoola, a Howard County native living in Columbia, has made it her mission to give students an increased voice on the school board.
“I’m glad they were able to reinforce the fact that student members are important and valuable to our boards of education,” Ayoola said. “The will of a few shouldn’t trump the majority of student opinions.”
Marcy Leonard, Wilde Lake High School’s principal, served as the first student member of Howard’s school board during the 1988-89 school year. She is now Ayoola’s principal and said she’s proud of her and other students fighting for their voices to be heard.
“It is wonderful to see the importance and value of the student voice being affirmed in such a powerful, legal way,” Leonard said.
Well before she was elected student board member, Ayoola had high expectations for high school, looking forward to football games and dances, meeting new teachers and peers.
“I’m the type of person to romanticize things,” she said. “I had big plans for high school and what I thought it would be like.”
Then the pandemic hit in March 2020, at the end of her eighth-grade year. The start of her freshman year she attended classes online only, then had a hybrid schedule in the spring. Her idealized picture of school faded.
“The hallways were very empty,” she remembers. “There was a lot of quiet in the classrooms. We didn’t really speak to our teachers that much since we were very distanced.”
In the two years since, Ayoola has joined a variety of clubs and extracurricular activities, from class council to orchestra, as well as taken on challenging course work.
“[The pandemic] has made me become a lot more focused on what I spend my time doing and how to maximize the little time I have in high school,” she said.
Ayoola became particularly active in Students for Social Justice and the mental health group Active Minds, both of which give students space to discuss current events such as protests for racial justice and the assault Jan. 6, 2021 on the U.S. Capitol.
Ayoola was chosen by more than 130 students delegates as one of two finalists for student board member during the Howard County Association of Student Councils convention. Ayoola based her campaign platform on four pillars: school environment, mental health and wellness, unity and inclusion, and communication. Upon assuming office in July, she broke down her pillars into smaller, achievable goals.
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“The most tangible thing that I really want to do is improve the participation at the board from students,” Ayoola said, noting the policy for bullying is up for review this year and she wants to ensure students’ voices are incorporated. “That’s a quantitative thing that I can feasibly accomplish simply by just spreading the word to students and saying, ‘Hey, we have this public hearing occurring at this time, so this is where you should voice your opinion.’”
This fall, Ayoola also will participate in the school system’s Intern/Mentor Program alongside Leonard, the Wilde Lake principal , who will guide her as she focuses on board duties.
“Abisola brings a wisdom that will allow her to sit in the spaces with the other adult members of the board and more than hold her own, but also an enthusiasm and a spirit of kindness and compassion and leading for people first,” Leonard said.
Ayoola loves sewing, having saved up for her own machine when she was 11, and plans to on a career in fashion design and business.
“Being on the Board of Education is teaching me a lot about people and how policies affect people,” she said. “Even though I don’t really want to go into education, or policy or political science, it’s just teaching me a lot about how to work with others and be a part of a team. Even with fashion, you have to learn how to be a leader and how to direct people to delegate tasks.”