Howard's newest school board member provides a voice for students

Jess Nocera
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Ambika Siddabathula has dreams of traveling the world.

But for now, the high school senior has another focus: to be the voice on the Howard County school board representing her 58,000 fellow classmates.

Ambika, 17, who attends River Hill High School, was picked by students in middle and high schools during an April election.

“A lot of students in the county believe that their voice isn't being heard and I really wanted to change that,” the Clarksville resident said. “The communication can become better in the future by empowering the students so what they say is a direct impact on the community.”

The student member is able to vote all issues except those involving personnel, student discipline, union employment contracts and the yearly budget — often the thorniest matters facing the seven elected school board members.

Superintendent Michael Martirano said having a student’s perspective in the policy development and decision-making process is important.

“When they [the student member] spoke, it was reality based, they are living it, they are the student walking the halls, they are the ones signing up for courses, they are the ones affected by shifts in the buses and snow days, whatever it may be,” Martirano said.

As students returned to classes this week, Ambika has put forward a three-pronged platform for her term: Having better communication between the school board and students, better representation of all students and improving the implementation of school board policies.

To achieve the goals, she plans to visit every middle and high school and wants to receive monthly status reports from the county’s 77 schools.

Ambika also wants to create a student council with representatives from each school. She said while students are represented by the various Student Government Associations, there are some with ideas that “are not willing to come forward.”

Ambika also wants to create videos detailing new policies so “teachers understand it in a more broken down way.”

She is succeeding a River Hill High School graduate, Anna Selbrede.

“This position seemed like the best way to make an impact for students We have a seat at the table, we have partial voting rights,” Selbrede said. “Sounds cheesy, but it’s the best way to affect change.”

Selbrede, 18, is attending the University of Chicago this fall, studying public policy.

Kirsten Coombs, a school board member, said that having a student member is a “powerful way” to have students represented.

“They take the time to meet with kids around the county, bringing the perspectives back to the board so when they vote on policy they have [the student’s perspectives] in mind,” Coombs said.

The expectation of the student member is that they have a good sense of representing all students, act as a role model and leader and keep on top of all the reading and information that the school board handles, Coombs said.

Each of the 24 public school districts in Maryland has a student member, as does the State Board of Education. Approved in 1985, the state student member is appointed by the governor and is able to vote on all matters expect those pertaining to personnel or appeals.

Ambika was among six candidates who applied to become the student member for this academic year. A student delegate convention at Wilde Lake High School in February winnowed the field to two before the April vote.

Cindy Drummond, an adviser to the Howard County Association of Student Councils, said the selection process and convention were “humbling to watch.” The association of student councils has about 100 student representatives from all high schools and most middle schools who are all interested having a role in policymaking, Drummond said.

“The students ran all of it, all of it, from writing the policy, [to] serving as delegates, organizing the buses, checking students in, to managing the podium,” Drummond said.

When asked if there should be an option to have the student member selected by county voters, like the current school board, Ambika said “it’s a terrible idea.”

“We are not representing the parents, we are representing the students,” Ambika said.

A student member’s impact

Ambika said her predecessors did a “great job” of bringing the student perspective before the school board but believes there is still room for improvement, mostly with student representation.

During Selbrede’s term, she wrote and presented a resolution declaring that the school board supports “student voice regarding student safety.”

In the resolution that passed, the school board stated they recognized that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School school shooting on Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Fla., “served as a nationwide call to action to address school safety as well as the power of student voice.”

Selbrede wanted to have the resolution passed when student walkouts were being established and some school systems, including Harford County, banning students from taking part in walkouts.

“My focus point was that … students should be allowed to use their voices to fight for that safety,” Selbrede said. “It was sad that I had to do it but I thought it was a cool way to use the position and advocate for what the students wanted.”

Selbrede also had a hand in editing policies that came before the board.

Selbrede said sometimes when the board members were discussing topics, some would say “Anna is actually in school,” and seek her advice.

“It [was] a nice respect [that] they turned to me and asked what I thought,” Selbrede said.

In addition to attending meetings and the school board’s Coffee and Conversation events, Ambika is expected to join members during meetings with state lawmakers.

“It’s exciting [with] what the student members have the opportunity to contribute to with policy,” whether is be student dress codes, school start times or the yearly calendar, Coombs said.

Ambika will go to the Maryland State House in Annapolis to testify on policy and witness how the school board works with state and local officials throughout next year’s legislative session.

She said she is looking forward to improving networking and time-management skills. Ambika has been involved in an Indian style of dance, Kuchipudi, since she was 3 years old. She was a summer intern at the Food and Drug Administration, studying the effects of glue on metal.

Ambika, who is also applying to colleges where she would like to pursue business and pre-medicine, said it’s “an amazing opportunity” and an honor to sit on the school board.

“I want to walk away with the feeling that I made an impact in Howard County,” Ambika said. “I want to impact individuals because I feel that makes a big difference and letting people know that their opinions matter and if they just communicate it properly it’s going to change the way the [school] board looks at things.”

jnocera@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jessmnocera

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