The two finalists candidates for next year’s student member of the county’s Board of Education were chosen last week at a student-run convention at Wilde Lake High School.
Allison Alston, a junior at Reservoir High School and Long Reach High School junior Hannah Witkin were named the finalists.
The winner will be elected April 24 by all middle and high school students, and will represent the 77-school district and its nearly 58,000 students.
Student delegates, all 132 of them representing middle and high schools throughout the county, casted their votes Wednesday after hearing 14 candidates give statements, answer prepared questions and participate in a round robin event where each delegates could visit five candidates and ask on-the-fly questions.
All 24 public school districts in Maryland have a student member, as does the State Board of Education. Approved in 1985, the state board’s student member is appointed by the governor and is able to vote on all matters except those pertaining to appeals or personnel.
In Howard County, the student member of the board can vote on all issues except those pertaining to the school budget, personnel or other restricted matters.
School officials prohibited interviews with the two finalists, but in prepared remarks in the voting guide, Witkin said she strives to be “ always willing to improve my awareness of student life and adapt my stances to represent these experiences as completely and comprehensively as possible.”
In her remarks, Allison said she studying abroad in France taught her “how to not only accept but appreciate cultural difference which will be extremely important if I am chosen to lead in such a diverse school system.”
Ambika Siddabathula, a senior at River Hill High School and the current student member, was pleased to see more than twice the number of candidates sign up this year from when she ran. Ambika was one of six candidates and the only female to run last year.
While last year’s convention was “very nerve-racking,” Ambika said it was “overall a phenomenal experience.” She said she met some of her best friends through the convention.
The convention process also has raised awareness about the student member position — also known as the SMOB — she added.
“Last year when I went around to middle schools and I asked what the SMOB does, they didn’t know,” Ambika said.
But this year, the middle schoolers are knowledgeable of the student member and are interested in the position — this year one middle schooler even asked Ambika if she could run. Until they get to high school, middle school students can participate in the process as delegates.
Eli Stettner, a seventh-grader at Lime Kiln Middle, was a second-time student delegate Wednesday.
For Eli, the responsibility of a student delegate centers around talking to your peers and asking them what they are looking for in a student member to make an informed vote. After the convention, Eli will keep his classmates informed until the final April vote.
To be a delegate, students completed an application that required two teacher recommendations. From there, the students were asked questions by a panel, each unique to their school.
Of the 132 student delegates, each middle school had three students and each high school had six representatives. Homewood, the county’s alternative school, also had student delegates.
Jose Gaitan, a sophomore at Homewood, said he was looking for a student member candidate who could speak up for others.
“Not everyone has the power to speak up for themselves,” Gaitan said.
Chris Lidard, a delegate and sophomore at Centennial High School, was looking for a candidate who “speaks well, is knowledge and is confident.”
Chris wants the next student member to be well-informed about specific school policies, including Policy 8020: Grading and Reporting at the high school level. The policy states that principals will communicate information about grading and reporting to all students, parents and staff.
Shubhi Saxena, a junior at Centennial High School was this year’s convention director. Like Ambika, she said the biggest difference in the two conventions was how the number of candidates more than doubled this year.
“That kind of shows how great this convention is,” Shubhi said.
Shubhi said that the position has been made more accessible to students because they now know they can be a voice for their education.
“Now that we know we have our say in education we are going to see change soon … we are going to be represented in our education,” Shubhi said.
Many of the student delegates and committee members, including Shubhi, are part of the Howard County Association of Student Councils, where middle and high school students take part in student-run monthly meetings where they discuss events impacting students and can share ideas with the student member of the board. The student member attends all meetings.
The final candidates will participate in a forum March 13, hosted by the association of student councils.
Nico Drummond, a freshman at Howard High School, was one of the four videographers at the convention. He helped film the entire convention and interviewed delegates. The final video will be shown during voting in April.
Nico and his fellow videographers are going to “power through” to edit the video in time for the final election.
“The goal of the convention is to celebrate student voice,” Nico said. “Our video is trying to show the power and drive that the students have.”