Students fight for right to vote on Philadelphia’s school board

Advocates push for change in state, local policy

Sheyla Street, standing left, a senior at Central High School and a member of The Philly Black Students Alliance, leads a rally at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia. (Johann Calhoun / Chalkbeat)

A growing chorus of student leaders are calling for their representatives on the city’s school board to have the right to vote on policies affecting them. 

They argue students are denied a voice in the decision-making process despite being the ones most affected by the board’s choices.

“As a former student representative, I noticed the majority of the tasks, action items, are targeting us as students,” said Doha Ibrahim, a former student board representative, who is now a freshman at Temple University and graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School last year. 

“It made me question why we couldn’t vote on them even though they are for us?” she said. “This is why it’s important to change that for the next student representatives.”

It’s not a simple change. The students would need a ballot initiative to change the city charter, which states students are non-voting representatives. They would also need a change to the Pa. school code that requires board members to be at least 18 years old. That would  require legislative approval.

If students become full voting members of the school board they also could be named in lawsuits against the board.

The students also want to create a 15-member student committee from diverse schools across the district to support and inform the two student representatives. They also are concerned about getting information about action items in advance of board meetings and ensuring a smooth transition when student representatives change each school year.

Tamir Harper, executive director of the student organization UrbEd, said all of the demands are not about getting the vote for the student reps, but getting the support and the knowledge they need to be effective in their roles.

“The mayor can really become a champion of this work and say this is what the students need,” Harper said. “This is about the well being and rights of students.” 

Mayor Jim Kenney wants to hear from students directly before determining if changes are warranted, because of the legal and technical considerations that exist, according to a spokesperson from his office.

The school board has not always included student representatives. When the school district was under state control  and governed by the School Reform Commission, it did not have student reps. The current nine-member school board has two non-voting students in Keylisha J. Diaz, a junior at Philadelphia Military Academy, and Toluwanimi Olaleye, a junior at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science. 

“It is crucial that students be given the power to help decide the fate of their own education. We demand strong influence on the school board, which is supposed to serve us,” said Sheyla Street, a senior at Central High School and a member of The Philly Black Students Alliance.

The students have received a groundswell of support from teachers, community organizers, and  local politicians.

“Their voices are important,” said Tamara Anderson, a local educator with the Racial Justice Organizing Committee and Melanated Educators. “And much of what the board decides affects them first. But I also believe if the charter is changed it should also include protections for the students when the school board faces legal action. Especially since there are a percentage of our high school students who are over the age of 18.”

Councilmember Kendra Brooks said the issue is not just about fair representation.

“It’s also about encouraging our young people to be civically engaged today so that they are empowered to become tomorrow’s leaders,” she said. “I believe that by giving real power to the student voices on the Board of Education, the board’s decisions will better reflect what Philly students, teachers, and families need and deserve.”

Christopher Paslay, who teaches English at Swenson Arts and Technology High School, disagrees.

Paslay said the two student representatives  should be able to advocate and lobby school board members on student issues, but they should not have a direct vote. He said students are still too young and lack the “overall experience and depth of knowledge of the issues.”

“Any stakeholder — parents, teachers, community members, education advocates — could argue the same thing: that they should have a direct voice on the vote, since the school board decisions directly impact them and their children/students/community,” Paslay said.

Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, sides with the student leaders and feels their voice should be centered.

“I am all for the student voice being amplified, supported, heard, and listened to,” Klehr said. “This means students should have a real voice in decision-making. Figuring out a way to allow students to vote on matters affecting students would be a positive change.”

Youma Diabira, a senior at Central High School, stressed the opinion of the students is most important. 

“You can’t keep telling students they have a voice, but not giving them a vote, because it almost makes their voice null and void,” Diabira said. “We should be given a vote in a place that’s serving us, and we are not.”

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