Promising to listen and lead, Newark teenager joins school board as student rep

Kimberly Gonzalez, a junior at Technology High School, was elected student representative to the Newark Board of Education. (Courtesy of Kimberly Gonzalez)

While all eyes are on the cabinet being assembled by President-elect Joe Biden, a 16-year-old student in Newark is ready to build her own group of close advisors.

Kimberly Gonzalez, of Technology High School, was elected student representative to the Newark Board of Education earlier this month. She will be sworn in for her two-year term on Tuesday.

“I wanted to serve my community in a larger platform,” Gonzalez said. “And I saw this as an opportunity to put myself out there, and also to really be that student voice of perspective for all the schools in the district, and bring the concerns or ideas they may have.”

To that end, Gonzalez intends to form a cabinet of students from each school “to know for sure that I am listening to everyone’s voices,” she said. “It is one of the first things I will do.”

The board’s previous student representative also created a cabinet, which consisted of 15 students chosen by each high school principal. They brought suggestions to the student representative, who conveyed their ideas to the full board.

Gonzalez approached the position — an advisory role that doesn’t have voting authority — without a set agenda, but she has thought about how and why she intends to work. Not yet knowing how much influence a teenager could have on the board, Gonzalez plans to start by listening. 

During the candidate forum featuring Gonzalez and the three other young women who also ran for the seat, Gonzalez realized, “why not set up a cabinet since everybody seemed to think we can do a lot of things if we work together?”

Sitting in her room under school photo portraits and chatting over Zoom, with the district’s public information officer on the line, Gonzalez comes off as poised and ready. Those are among the qualities that Noemi Ballester, parent liaison and student council advisor, noticed when Gonzalez was a freshman. And it was why she served as Gonzalez’s campaign manager.

“Kimberly is a good listener,” Ballester said. “She is always willing to help others and is goal-oriented. She is authentic and always sees a light. She has a positive mindset; she believes there is a solution to everything. She is just awesome.”

For example, Ballester noted that Newark high school students are required to do 20 hours of community service a year. In her freshman year, Gonzalez did 50. Ballester had not managed a student’s campaign before but was so impressed by Gonzalez’s attitude that she wanted to help her.

“She is positive and knows there has to be a solution,” Ballester said. “She is open to seeing different views, which would be very beneficial for all of the students and bring their voice to the table.”

The two-year term will see Gonzalez, a junior, through graduation. This year, when she has a heavy course load, including two AP classes, Gonzalez’s favorite subject is graphic print design. Like many juniors, she has college on her mind, considering the possibility of attending Rutgers University or Cornell School of Hotel Administration.

“The idea I had since seventh grade is I want to be in the hotel chain business,” said Gonzalez, who hasn’t stayed in a hotel yet during her young life. “It came to me because I feel like working in a hotel would be a very interesting job. And dream big: Why not own a hotel chain?”

She already has mastered a skill many adults struggle with — time management. Gonzalez referred to it while reflecting on learning remotely.

“In the beginning, it was a bit of an adjustment to do it,” she said of school during the time of COVID-19. “It was a lot of time management to actually get things done, and I feel I have adapted pretty well, and I want to help others. 

“During these times, where there is a lot of virtual learning,” she continued, “I want to see us more focused on the students’ well-being, be it academically, especially mentally, and emotionally because these are trying times for both the teachers and the students. I feel like there needs to be a better support system where the students can feel comfortable enough to bring their concerns forward, and it could actually be addressed.” 

Gonzalez stressed that initial suggestions coming from students “can be something as simple as an idea where they want to clean the city, completely. It starts with the idea, and then it is with the persistence of brainstorming some possible ways of doing that, and then with some outside help of the adults, I feel we could execute that plan.”

Her excitement about the position is tempered with a dose of self-awareness.

“Although I am in this position, I would like people to know I am still a student,” Gonzalez said. “I am going to need people’s help. Help me and come to me, and I may come to them for help. I am not going to pretend I can do everything. It is going to have to be a very big team effort.”

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