Philadelphia students need true representation on the district’s school board — and voting power, a group of youth activists said Tuesday.
Two student representatives now sit on the board, participating in meetings and advising the nine-member panel that governs the Philadelphia School District. But they lack the ability to vote. Both the city’s charter and state law currently prohibit students from having voting rights on the board.
Tatyana Roldan, a senior at Northeast High, said a new form of student power is needed, including a 15-member advisory board of students that would help young board members effectively represent the school system’s 205,000 students in traditional public and charter schools.
Roldan is a member of the Philadelphia Black Students Association, which, along with UrbEd, a student-organized and -run nonprofit focused on city school issues, held a news conference about expanded student representation Tuesday.
“There’s no reason that the school board should be gatekeeping student representation,” Roldan said. “We need to make it very easy for students to actually represent themselves.”
Advocates’ calls for more robust student representation have been growing louder in recent months, but the current student board members have said they want to keep their roles as is, without voting power. Former student board members Imere Williams and Doha Ibrahim, 2020 graduates of the district, both said they endorse the call for student voting rights.
Toluwanimi Olaleye, a junior at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science and one of the two current student representatives, said having the right to vote would be nice, “but it would also come with very unique challenges, such as having in-depth knowledge of financial considerations and budgeting information.”
The right to vote would also mean making “tough decisions that we don’t feel comfortable with at this time,” Olaleye said at last Thursday’s board meeting.
City Councilmember Kendra Brooks said that she fully supports the push, and that students deserve more than just “symbolic gestures of inclusion.” The current student representatives are chosen by the board after an application process open to all district and city charter students.
“Our young people are the ones that are directly impacted by the decision that the Board of Education makes,” Brooks said. “When schools are closed, when budgets are cut, and when policies are established, it’s only logical that they are given a voice in those decisions.”
Arguments that young people are not adequately equipped to vote on matters as complicated as the district’s $3.5 billion budget ring hollow, Brooks said.
“We don’t have to worry about corporate lobbies or political pressure clouding their viewpoints,” said Brooks. “They speak from real, lived experience.”
School board president Joyce Wilkerson said that student board members have a real seat at the table as the board does its work, and that they have highlighted and advanced issues such as increasing student voter registration, combating violence, and increasing student access to mental health support — a cause championed by Olaleye and Keylisha Diaz, the second 2020-21 school board member, a junior at Philadelphia Military Academy.
“This is board work we are proud of and an aspect of our design that makes us unique among boards across the state and country,” Wilkerson said. “The board appreciates student-led efforts to make the Board more accessible to students across the city. We look forward to learning from these groups and continuing to improve on our practices.”