The first time I ever voted was in the last midterm election at the McGaw YMCA in Evanston, IL. I bounced into the silent carpeted room ready to check off the names I wrote down on a Post-it and feel the civic duty coursing through my veins and into my patriotic pen. Unfortunately, it was all computerized and mostly underwhelming until I got my “I voted” sticker from the bored looking lady by the door. That little sticker is still fused to my early spring jacket.
For the students of New Haven’s fourteen public high schools on Thursday, April 7, the process looked much the same—but instead of voting for congressmen, the students voted for Student Representative to the Board of Education. On Thursday morning, the polls opened at all high schools. Through Friday afternoon students will still be casting their votes on thick cardstock in their high school cafeterias and walking away with classic red and white “I voted” badges on their chests. By late Friday night, maybe early Saturday morning if tradition holds, the Committee on Student Elections (COSE) will know which of the seven sophomore candidates will replace Coral Ortiz as the junior representative.
These elections have paper ballots, authentic stickers, and real stakes. “As much as possible, we want these elections to mirror the general election procedures that I went through, that the mayor went through, that every one of my colleagues on the Board of Education went through,” said Ward 8 Alderman Aaron Greenberg, GRD’18. Until last year, there was no student representative on the Board of Education. But in December 2013, the City of New Haven voted on a new charter, as is its custom every ten years or so. One of the features of the new charter was the addition of four new positions on the Board of Education, which up until then had only included members appointed by the mayor. The new board was to comprise two members elected from the general population and two elected student representatives, in addition to the original appointed board members. As chair of the education committee on the Board of Alders, Alderman Greenberg created a committee, COSE, to turn the will of the voters into policy.
Last spring, New Haven high schools had their first student representative elections. “It felt very special to have the first civic experience that people have being potentially during their first year of high school,” Alderman Greenberg commented. Kimberly Sullivan of Sound School and Coral Ortiz of James Hillhouse High School won the student rep seats in the 2015 election. Though Sullivan will graduate this year, leaving her seat to be filled in this election, Ortiz will become the senior representative and work with the new rep to continue the work she and Sullivan began this year. Jacob Spell and Dwayne Carson of Hyde School of Health Sciences and Sports Medicine; Alondra Martinez Lopez, Melady Morocho, and Tyron Houston of High School in the Community; Joseph Lampo of Wilbur Cross High School; and Yiemy Morales of Hill Regional Career High School are vying for the open seat. Ortiz isn’t looking for much in particular in her partner’s replacement. “Someone who’s just compassionate, cares about others, and is really hard working—that would be my ideal person,” Ortiz said.
On Tuesday morning, April 5, the library at High School in the Community was buzzing with student voices. That was the idea. The student councils of New Haven’s fourteen high schools were gathered for their monthly meeting, where they could express frustration and communicate ideas to the student representatives and adults in charge of the student councils. This meeting, like all city-wide student council meetings, served as a place for the current student representatives to hear from their electorate: the student leadership from each school voiced concerns specific to their student bodies. This particular student council meeting, though, was also a stop on the campaign trail for the candidates for next year’s junior student representative.
Gathered in the front corner of the room opposite the dry erase boards shouting “Welcome to the City-Wide Student Council Meeting!” in colorful marker, the candidates for student rep gave short pitches to the councils and fielded questions from their peers. While a few candidates had more specific agendas—diversified curricula, higher security—most focused on reiterating the need for student voice. “One thing I really want to stress if I get elected to this position would be communication, and the student council is really important to communication. As I saw, today we were able to get all of our voices together. Some schools have a problem getting through to the administration, but here, we can come together to solve those problems. That’s very beneficial to all the schools and all the 21,173 students in New Haven,” Lampo said in his statement. (“Ooh”s floated from the crowd when he pulled out the exact statistic.)
Though she wasn’t present because of a transportation snafu, Morales’s statement, sent to Sullivan through email, echoed Lampo’s sentiment: “I want to persuade the Board of Education that we have voices too and be the liaison between the adults and children.” The emphasis on student voice resonated with the statement from superintendent Garth Harries. “I say all the time, in all the struggles we have in education, one of the things I’m proudest of is the way that student voice is growing here in New Haven. Student voice, student agency, student responsibility: I believe those are the things that are ultimately going to transform this district,” he said.
The establishment of the role of student rep has had a noticeable effect on the impact of the student perspective. In other words, it’s accomplishing what it set out to do.
“I’ve seen more students willing to open up and share their voices,” current rep Coral Ortiz told me. “At my school, I’ve seen students more willing to share their opinions in newspaper outlets, or write a letter to the alderman, or just feel empowered to talk about their feelings or the way things are running at their school, which I don’t think was happening as much before.”
Near the end of the meeting, the students were sent to the back of the library behind the stacks of books to grab the lunch laid out for them by the host school, High School in the Community. Martinez Lopez and Morocho ate their sandwiches together at the end of the library’s couch.
“Melady and I are best friends and we did this together. We’re not going to fight over each other if she won or if I won because at the end of the day, we’re supporting the community and also we are all aiming for the same goal,” Martinez Lopez told me. Before the winning candidate enters the complicated reality of local government, the process of the election maintains a sense of innocence. Though they were both representing their own campaigns, the two girls spoke together and supported each other’s ideas.
Martinez Lopez and Morocho both attend High School in the Community, and they dance together outside of school. Their friend Tyron, also from HSC, later expressed this sentiment as well. “Me and Melody and Alondra all go to the same school, and we’re all really good friends. One of the things I told them was even though I’m running, and we’re all running, I don’t want that to mess up our friendship at all,” he said.
The candidates recognize that they’re all running because they believe in the strength and importance of the student perspective. One of the current candidates, Jacob Spell, a soft-spoken shooting guard on the Hyde basketball team, includes social-emotional learning as a central part of his platform. “Something that I want to see is helping students deal with stress because a lot of it goes unnoticed, and that can affect the learning environment. The emotional part of the student is as important as the academic part,” he said.
Candidate Tyron Houston also addressed access in education, and centered his platform around a more diverse curriculum that acknowledges historical perspectives outside of the white American one. He also highlighted his connection to the Future Project, a national organization dedicated to empowering students of all backgrounds to break away from a disengaged generation and change the world for the better.
This youthful idealism, though exciting, may give way to a more a jaded, junior maturity the way it did for current rep Ortiz.
“Coming into this I had a very idealistic mindset, and I was like, ‘I can save the world! Things can be fixed with a magic wand and everything’s going to be great,’” Ortiz said. “I think I realized that you can’t fix the world in two years. And that’s something that really made me more mature in the past six months. It’s really changed my mindset because I know that not everything can get fixed, but you still have to try to fix everything.”
Ortiz’s maturity is one of her most striking features. Though only a junior in high school, she has already dealt with negative press with grace. “I realized that politicians are humans as well. I stopped reading the New Haven Independent comments because they’ll say things like ‘these students don’t represent everyone,’ and yeah, it wasn’t saying I was dumb or anything, but it’s still like I’m trying really hard. Just in public comments to have people say things that aren’t the nicest has made me feel more compassionate towards politicians as a whole.”
Ortiz also has grown to understand the nuanced problems that face school district like New Haven’s. “I’ve realized that being in an urban school is really hard for some kids, and we have to deal with a lot of issues that other schools don’t have to,” she said. Over the past year, Ortiz has learned about how a lack of acknowledgement for the stresses and challenges urban students face outside of school creates an unequitable learning environment. “It’s hard because in New Haven there’s a lot of low income individuals who have to think about a lot of other things besides school,” she elaborated. “It took me awhile to realize the impact that socio-economic status has on individuals until I really saw it in terms of 21,000 kids.”
Though the role of student representative has spurred increased civic engagement among New Haven Public School students, the students seem to believe that there is a lot more work to be done in terms of elevating student voice at the administrative and policy level, particularly within the role of student rep. “I think it could definitely be improved,” said Martin Clark, a junior at Wilbur Cross who ran for the position last year. “My major critique is, sure, the Board of Ed is there and they take the opinion of the two students that have been elected, but those students don’t have any real power. They just relay information, but they don’t have a vote.” Because student representatives to the Board of Education do not have voting power, there is only so much they can say, and there is only so much influence they can have, Clark explained. “Coral and Kimberly are doing a great job, but at a point, the Board of Education has to really listen, and sometimes without any real authority coming out of the student reps I’m afraid that doesn’t really happen as much as we were led to believe when we started running,” he said.
Ortiz shares this frustration. “I think I went into it expecting I was going to be an equal and then realizing, you know, maybe this voting power is more essential than I thought it was going to be,” she admitted. Despite this disappointment, Ortiz refused to let it bog her down. “Once I realized that it was frustrating at first, I’m not going to say it wasn’t, but then I think what happened was I told myself I can do two things: I can continue voicing my opinion and hope someone listens, or I can do nothing…In the past couple months that’s really when I grasped the concept of ‘I can do more’ than I think people assume I can.”
While the lack of voting power is certainly a weakness in the student representative position, it’s not because the Committee on Student Elections doesn’t trust the students with the responsibility. “The two student members are not voting members because they don’t qualify as electors under Connecticut State law, but they have a voice, even if they don’t have the ability to actually render votes,” Alderman Greenberg said.
Suzanne Lyons, a social worker and project manager for the student representative elections clarified the function of the current role of the student reps: “One of the things the committee was very clear on is that we wanted them to be as close to full adult voting members as possible. So whenever something goes to vote, they are able to chime in to the actual discussion. If a motion is on the table, they’re an active part of the discussion prior to the vote.”
Though the adults insist the students are regarded as equals, the students themselves don’t seem to agree. “I mean it’s hard at times—because I can’t vote, I feel like respect isn’t there,” Ortiz explains. Lyons, though, is as passionate about perfecting the role of student rep as the students themselves are. She promoted an idea proposed by Sullivan at the last Board meeting permitting students to express which way they would vote, even if their vote wouldn’t be counted. “I think it’s a really interesting perspective to explore because in addition to having their voices in the conversation it would allow the other board members to see if they did have voting rights what would that look like?” Lyons said.
For all the frustration of the position, Ortiz and Sullivan have shown that there is cause for optimism. In their first year together, they have tackled issues that the student body expressed were important to them and are quickly seeing results. When New Haven schools dealt with viral videos of fighting in the hallways and drama over social media, Ortiz and Sullivan brought their concerns for the security of their schools to the attention of the Board. They are now on the committee responsible for recommending a new security director for the district.
“Fighting in schools is a really big issue, especially in New Haven and high schools specifically,” Ortiz noted. “And, you know, kids were saying, we need to check this. We need to get a new security head. And it wasn’t until [Kimberly] and I brought forth pieces of social media, a viral video that went out from one of the schools, that they finally listened, and now they’re looking for a new security officer and including students and teachers in the search.”
Sullivan and Ortiz seem to share a concern for the coming year, though: that candidates won’t run for the position out of a genuine desire to improve New Haven’s education system, but for their own personal prestige or reputation. “My biggest concern is that people are doing this just for college,” Ortiz confessed. “I mean college is such a big part of our society right now. Everything is college, college, college, college. To the point where when we asked the candidates why they were doing this, one of the candidates admitted that it was for college. She bluntly said it.”
Ortiz said this surprised and scared her. Given the demands of the student rep seat, she says that if she were doing it just for college or the stamp of approval of a “leadership position,” she would have quit months ago. In her introduction to the Board of Education Student Candidate Forum on March 23, Sullivan stressed the seriousness of this role: “Through all of this, don’t lose sight of what the role really is and don’t take it for granted because for a long time it didn’t exist.” Though the seven new candidates are promising, there is a lot at stake for the future of student voice.
Voting ends Friday, April 8, and beginning in the mid-afternoon, COSE will hand tally the votes. Last year was the first year of elections, so the committee had to learn through trial and error—spending from 3:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m just unfolding ballots, and then half the night counting them. This year, hoping to avoid another near all-nighter, COSE has adapted the rules so that more people can count and handle the ballots, and altered the shape of the ballots and ballot boxes to avoid folding altogether. “As much as it was kind of a fun experience to be in there counting until two in the morning, it’s not something I think a lot of us want to do again,” Alderman Greenberg laughed.
In a video made to advertise the strength of student voice in New Haven, Mayor Toni Harp praised Sullivan and Ortiz and the role of student rep. “Oftentimes they are really the neutral voice on the Board of Education, and we absolutely need that if we’re going to move forward and take care of all the children in our city,” she said. With the establishment and refinement of the role of student rep, it seems the children of New Haven can now help take care of themselves.