When Grand Rapids Public Schools officials went looking this year for two student representatives to serve on its Board of Education, they found students like Javonte Jefferson, Henry Atkins and a whole bunch more.
In the past, district leaders had sought word-of-mouth recommendations of students who might be qualified to serve as the voice of their classmates to the school board. This year, Ron Gorman, the district’s director of high schools and alternative education, acted on a hunch that if he dug just a little deeper, he might find gold.
Gorman sought recommendations from the district’s high school principals and set up interviews with 14 students who rose above the rest. Instead of eliminating all but the two needed to fill spots on the board, Gorman decided to form what’s become a sort of in-house focus group that ensures district leaders hear student concerns.
“We decided not to exclude the other kids just because we didn’t need them on the school board,” Gorman said. “They’re still making a contribution each and every month.”
The 14-member Student Advisor Council meets monthly to give input on issues such as school uniforms and possible programs. Henry, a 17-year-old junior at City High/Middle School, has been asked to spend part of his summer investigating a district-wide debate program, similar to the one he is a member of at City.
“Sometimes other districts put students on their boards not so much to get student input as much as to look like they’re getting input,” Henry said. “What Grand Rapids Public Schools has done is anything but that.”
Gorman said he knew he had a pair of winners after watching Henry interact with Michigan State Board of Education member Lupe Ramos-Montigny at a board meeting.
“Henry saw her there, and gives her a shout-out from the board table,” Gorman said. “He just gets it.”
Respect Begets Respect
Henry said he’s been welcomed by adults on the board who handed him their phone numbers and business cards after his first official meeting. Javonte Jefferson, an 18-year-old senior at Innovation Central High School, agrees he and Henry are taken seriously by the elected board members.
“I thought it would just be straight-forward and bone dry, but it’s actually just the opposite” Javonte said of serving on the board. “Sometimes when we have the celebrations of all the good stuff that’s going on and you see the impact we have on little kids, it’s just awesome.”
Both students say the respect for others they’ve learned from watching board members interact with parents under sometimes difficult circumstances has been valuable. Henry sees the lessons as useful to his intended career as a congressional staffer, lobbyist or legal advisor in the military. Javonte is considering a career in either criminal justice or education.
Innovation Central Principal Mark Frost said Javonte shows a maturity beyond his leadership on the football field as an all-conference linebacker for the Ottawa Hills Bengals football team. Frost said Javonte also is popular among students, having been elected to the school’s homecoming and swirl courts.
“He’s very responsible, comes up to me and shakes my hand and talks to me,” Frost said. “He’s a great student and an even better kid.”
City High Principal Michael Pascoe had similar praise for Henry. Pascoe noted Henry also serves on his Principal’s Advisor Council.
“He’s willing to take on numerous things and take on the responsibility of representing the student voice,” Pascoe said. “He’s going to do some great things.”