Students on city school board work to be voting members Seeking power: The students want a say in such matters as educational standards and changes in curricula


As members of Baltimore's school board, Aaron Mitchell and Joseph L. Edmonds Jr. have been cheered and jeered. They've been booed -- and even sued. And when a recent public hearing ended with angry parents shouting, they were among the board members school police officers escorted from the room.

Board membership does have its privileges. Yet Baltimore's charter denies Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Edmonds the same powers as the nine adult members of the Board of School Commissioners because they are city high school students.

They have a voice, but not a vote.

Both say the time has come for Baltimore City to grant students a greater role in the policymaking that affects their schooling.

With dozens of student leaders from across the city, they are campaigning to amend the city's charter, a project that already has consumed hours of research and politicking. They are organizing a citywide petition drive and hope to put a question on the ballot for Baltimore's next general election, in Nov. 1996.

"The message I want to send is that we have a vital role in deciding what our education and our schools will be like in the future," said Mr. Edmonds, 17, a Baltimore Polytechnic Institute senior. "Changing the charter would mean the Board of Education would have a commitment to listening to students across the city -- and to making sure students take a greater part in ensuring they get the best education possible."

Since at least the 1970s, students have had non-voting seats on the Baltimore school board. Two high school students are nominated each April by the Associated Student Congress of Baltimore City, made up of the student government leaders from each city school. (The school board's adult membership is appointed by the mayor.)

As they pursue the right to vote, the students are learning invaluable political and organizational skills, student affairs administrator Malcolm Dutterer said at a congress meeting this fall.

His one-man office has advised the school system's young leaders for many years. His office is to be eliminated Dec. 31 as the school system cuts its budget, but students say they will persevere until they win their voting rights even if they lose Mr. Dutterer's assistance.

They have quietly contacted Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and won his support for their charter change drive. They obtained the support of the other school board members and schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey. They also are approaching the city council.

Next, says student congress president Milton Cummings, 17, a senior at Northwestern High School, they'll approach parents, teachers and others in the broader school community.

"We want to make sure that we're listened to and that our ideas are taken seriously," Mr. Cummings said. "We can make a difference in our society and in our community and in our schools."

It's not just about power and politics. They also are doing their homework. The charter says students serve "at the pleasure of the board," the young leaders learned. They want to amend it to ensure that there will always be student seats, to win access to the executive and closed meetings where the real decisions are made, and to gain "partial" voting rights.

The students want to vote in nearly all matters affecting their peers -- including educational standards, curriculum changes and school rezoning, for example.

Some of the students began the project wanting all the same voting privileges as the adult members. After checking policies for other school systems in the state, however, they decided not to seek a vote in personnel and discipline cases, particularly cases involving sanctions against teachers and principals, Mr. Edmonds said.

"I think we need to do this gradually," he said. "Eventually, we would like to have full voting privileges, but to get them, we'd need to continually present to the public that we can do the job.

Irene Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said she would be opposed to students voting on contract and personnel matters -- and any other issues on which they are not fully informed. Some of their comments at recent board meetings, she said, indicate that the school board has shielded them from vital information -- "for good reason."

"I believe that student commissioners have a place," she said. "I think that the best that student representatives can bring is the perspective of students, and I think that's probably enough. That's a lot different from having a vote."

As it seeks greater power, the student congress must shore up its nominating process and training, said board member Mitchell, 16, a junior at Baltimore City College high school.

"We have to make sure the student commissioners are qualified -- and that they are committed to it, because it does take a lot of time," he said.

"What a lesson," Susan K. Travetto, who coordinates student leadership programs for the state Department of Education, said of the students' campaign

"I find that many of the students who get involved in their local governments and their student councils stay involved, and many go on to college and look to education as a [career] place to be."

All but five of the state's 24 school districts -- and the Maryland school board -- have student members or representatives, she said. Garrett County has drafted legislation to add a student member this year.

Only one Maryland school district -- Anne Arundel County -- grants to students the same voting privileges as other board members, and has since 1974. At the Maryland school board, student members vote on all matters except personnel, legal affairs and budget. In Montgomery and Prince George's counties, also, student school board members have partial voting rights.

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