Student reps speak out on local school board

Jessica Brotherson, left, and Andrew Wilson, right
Parry McCluer High School seniors Jessica Brotherson and Andrew Wilson.

By Morgan Holt

The state association of school boards has been pushing the idea that local school boards should listen to students. Of the three public systems in Rockbridge County, only Buena Vista has adopted this system.

This is the second year that Buena Vista has had two students from the high school serve as non-voting members of the school board.

“They’re on the inside looking out,” said Buena Vista Superintendent Rebecca Gates. “I’m very curious to see what the priorities are of the students.”

Out of the 134 school systems in Virginia, 27 have adopted the experiment of putting student representatives alongside the grownups who control millions of dollars and hire and fire superintendents.

Jessica Brotherson and Andrew Wilson, seniors at Parry McCluer High School, made their debut at the Sept. 22 school board meeting, where they found themselves as a regular item on the agenda. Each school board meeting, they are expected to give an informal report about what is going on in the high school and concerns they have heard from the other three Buena Vista schools. In short, they are the spokespeople for all 1,055 students in their district.

The principal of PMHS, Anna Graham, chose Brotherson and Wilson because of their willingness to speak out and their involvement in meaningful extra-curricular activities.

Brotherson has lived in Buena Vista since she was 4 and has gone to public school there her entire life. In addition to being a part of the theater department and choir program at school, she is a student worker at Woods Creek Montessori after school and served on the Model UN last year.

Wilson, the student body president, is a soccer player and drum major who dreams of being a music education major at James Madison University. Because of his love of music, Wilson said, he hopes to convey to the board the importance of keeping music in public schools.

Both Brotherson and Wilson are in the National Honor Society and take many Advanced Placement courses in preparation for college.

“They represent the whole student body well,” Graham said. “They’re very personable, and I know they won’t be afraid to speak their mind on the board.”

Brotherson said the first meeting they attended was welcoming and well run. “It was cool talking about all these different programs that we as students take advantage of and seeing all these decisions made that impact us. Sometimes I wish more people would come to school board meetings.”

Wilson agrees that it is important to have students on the board because they are going to be directly affected by board decisions. He says that although the high school has its problems with teenage drinking, drugs and pregnancies, PMHS is in pretty good shape overall.

“High school’s gonna be high school,” he said. “It’s hard to address all the issues because there is only so much you can do. I think it’s better to handle that kind of stuff case-by-case. We don’t have huge problems here, but we do hear about them.”

Rockbridge County Superintendent John Reynolds says he does not think this is something his district needs to do. He said his schools have other ways of getting input from students, including advisory groups, student government representatives and each school’s Parent Teacher Association.

Dan Lyons, superintendent of Lexington schools, says that a student representative system wouldn’t be necessary or effective in his district because there is no high school.  He says he agrees that it is important to hear students’ opinions and hopes the Buena Vista school board will allot the time to hear what they have to say.

“I think it’s a good system if they’re allowed to operate like board members,” said Lyons. “You don’t want to bring people into your board if you’re not going to allow them to opportunity to speak.”