With the chaos of school, outside activities, and so much more, being in a school board meeting is usually the last thing on teens’ minds. But being present at those meetings and advocating for not only yourself, but for your community, school, and peers is more important than you can imagine.
This year, I had the amazing opportunity to be hired as a Cobb County school organizer at Georgia Youth Justice Coalition. In my short time there, I learned what it truly means to be active and speak up in the community. School superintendents and school board members don’t always do the best, so we students attending those schools need to remind them of the real issues that are going on in those hallways and discuss any concerns and topics we, the people in the community, may have. Racism, sexual assault, maintenance, subjects that should be taught, and others are all many valid reasons to speak.
When I first joined, I was intimated by the idea of getting up and speaking at the podium discussing how mental health is not taken seriously in Cobb. Having old men looking at me and not knowing if they were listening was nerve-wracking. However, every student should do more than come to school and take any mistreatment they have been handed. Speaking up promotes advocating for yourself, doing more in the community, and can help to bring unity and solidarity among students.
From my experiences, here are five tips and advice for students wanting to be active in school board meetings:
THINK and IDENTIFY an issue that may be a growing concern.
It’s good to ask yourself why and how it affects me and my peers at school, why it matters, and why the board should act on that concern. This is a starting point for a student’s testimony. Testimonies are when people in the county offer their public comments to the board and the superintendent. It gives people an opportunity to express their opinions and concerns on the school board.
PREPARE for the board meeting.
Coming into the school district can be nerve-wracking. It is best to come early, bring materials you may need, and copies of your testimony and evidence for the board if needed. After checking in, relax and take deep breaths. Public speaking doesn’t come easily to everyone, so don’t be afraid and anxious to rehearse until your name is called to speak.
ADDRESS a SOLUTION to the issue or concern.
It is vital that board members are hearing and understanding your concern. It is also important to include a solution to help them tackle the issue in schools. For example, I spoke on our school’s counselor-to-student ratio and how it is poorly managed. Counselors and students feel burned out mentally. Students can’t express their thoughts with a timer counting down. Counselors have to manage students’ mental health and also scheduling, college prep, and if a student is expressing suicidal thoughts, counselors have to tackle that first before anything. There is too much on their shoulders. A possible solution would be to hire more counselors and have each counselor specialize in areas for students. If hiring more counselors is not feasible, then promote 30 minutes before a period ends in one class each week to promote self-reflection by journaling and discussion. This gives students the option to talk to a trusted adult or with peers or they can choose to use the time to journal. This identifies a concern, the reasons for it, and a potential solution for the school board.
You’re HELPING your community.
We don’t live in a perfect world. Mistakes happen. In order to be resolved and not continue to make those mistakes, we have to go to the people in charge and ask for change. Not everyone will agree, and that’s OK. At the beginning and end of the board meeting, you have to remember this: you are helping your community understand the issues and helping the board acknowledge them.
DON’T be nervous.
I know, I know. Everyone always says, “Don’t be nervous!” and it can double your anxiety. Speaking from experience, it’s important to be level-headed, and calm. It’s OK to have jitters and be scared to mumble over words in front of a school board meeting filled with adults. What’s important is to remember why you are coming to the board meeting and speaking. It’s our job to use our voices to advocate for the changes needed to make schools and our community safer and more welcoming.
Here is a template for teens wanting to testify at school board meetings who may not know what to say, created by stuvoice.org, a student-started nonprofit organization:
My name is _____ and I’m a (grade level) at _____ school. I’m here today to discuss (issue). I’ve personally struggled with (issue) when (story, anecdote, description of your personal struggle, etc).
I’ve seen and discussed (issue) with my peers at my school and others throughout the district. We believe it should be addressed because (evidence about the issue, including anecdotal information about students’ experiences, statistics, or other analysis).
I believe (issue) must be changed by (suggestions of ways to address the issue at hand, like starting a taskforce to tackle the issue or making more specific policy suggestions).
I got my school board position from Georgia Youth Justice Coalition (GYJC) because I used to say, “This school doesn’t do anything” or “Why don’t we get this and they do that?” So many teens say the same thing repeatedly in schools. Then I saw an advertisement for GYJC and hiring positions. I saw this as an opportunity to actually be active and help my community. It was more than just getting community service hours for my benefit, but for the benefit of Georgia teens as a whole. Instead of making comments and sitting around, I decided to get up and make a change. It started with going to school board meetings and then helping local candidates get elected. These small things multiply. They grow and grow until it gains the attention of our mayors, senators, state representatives, governor, etc.
Speaking up holds people accountable and helps our schools be better and more accommodating to all. It does not take much to be active and it benefits us because we are speaking for people who can’t speak in the very room. We can help make positive changes in our community. That change starts, ends, and affects each of us when it comes to our schools and our education.