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Teen Brings Unique Voice to School Board


Many high school students might groan about attending a school board meeting. But for senior Pallas A. Snider, serving on the Anne Arundel County school board is a chance to make her voice heard on issues important to the community and fellow students. Included: A student's views on key community issues.

Pallas A. Snider may have only a one-year term on her local board of education, but she has a full agenda.

From helping with a superintendent search to reviewing school start times, Snider, 18, a senior at Severna Park (Maryland) High School, wants to make her mark as one of eight members of the Anne Arundel County Public Schools board of education. Anne Arundel County has the only school board in the U.S. that has a student member with full voting rights.

Snider also has reached out to constituents by starting an online forum so students can bring topics to her attention.

This year's big issues go along with the everyday oversight of a school system with 116 schools, 74,000 students, 5,000 teachers, and a current budget of $723 million.

When she is not busy with board business or studying for her six Advanced Placement classes, Snider has found time for school theater and musical activities. She also founded her school's Model United Nations Club.

According to her board profile, her goals include majoring in "linguistics or international relations at a reputable institution of higher learning."

Snider talked with Education World about the challenges of juggling her roles as a student and a board member, and some of the issues she has brought to the board.

Education World: What prompted you to run for the board of education?

Pallas A. Snider

Pallas A. Snider: When I was younger, my father was on the school board in Burlington, Vermont, where we lived at the time. So naturally, school policy was always up for discussion in our household. When I was in seventh grade, my family moved to Anne Arundel County, Maryland, and I began to testify at school board meetings occasionally about various school issues that concerned me. I remember being shocked at my first meeting when I saw a student sitting with the board. I soon learned that Anne Arundel County, besides being the 41st largest school district in the United States, was also the only school district in the country to have a student member with full voting rights. I was elated at the prospect of actually being able to implement some of the policies I'd been discussing and debating with my family for years. I was elected in March 2005; my one-year term began on July 1 and will end July 1, 2006.

EW: Why do you think it is important for students to serve on boards of education?

Snider: As a student, I am the only member of my board to spend every single day within the system. While some policies may sound good on paper, only a student has an idea of how they actually play out in the classroom. The board looks to me to provide them with that kind of information. They ask me how students have responded to schedule changes, what the everyday environment is actually like, and I think my observations really contribute to their decisions. Any school system would benefit from such insight being a part of the policymaking process.

EW: Do students and teachers treat you differently now that you're on the board?

"As a student, I am the only member of my board to spend every single day within the system. While some policies may sound good on paper, only a student has an idea of how they actually play out in the classroom."

Snider: Regardless of my position, I am still a student. I am taking six Advanced Placement classes this year and I am still expected to produce the same amount of work as everyone else. However, since taking office, I have noticed a clear change in the way I am treated by both staff and students at my school. It is odd to not only help manage an institution, but also to be a part of it. Some of the faculty members approach me with specific requests about their contracts or changing the school schedule. Students continually ask about improving the cafeteria's food and making school start later in the morning. I think sometimes people forget that I am at school primarily to learn, not just to be lobbied. But then again, none of the other board members get day-to-day interaction with their constituents so I think my regular interaction with both students and staff helps me act as a better representative.

EW: What has been harder about serving on the board than you expected?

Snider: Serving as any public figure is hard for the individual. It is always hard to take public criticism, and it took me a long time before I was able to swallow critical editorials in the local paper. Also, academically, it is difficult. I miss probably a third of school for board meetings and school visits, and in order to preserve my academic record, I have pretty much abandoned sleep in lieu of piles of make-up work.

In terms of the school board work itself, my term has been unexpectedly turbulent. Our superintendent resigned and so now after appointing an interim superintendent, we are in the midst of a superintendent search. We are also in the first year of having charter schools and have been debating changing schools' start times, both of which are extremely controversial.

EW: I understand you are supporting a change in start times for the district's high schools. Did you draft that motion, and why do you think changing the start time is a critical issue?

Snider:The school system has been talking about changing the school start time for years. Currently, Anne Arundel County has the earliest high school start time in the state of Maryland (7:17 a.m.) and both parents and teachers have been complaining for years. As a student, I can confirm their concerns. At 7:17 in the morning, many students are not awake. Even in my first period AP world history class, where one would expect to find the most alert students, over half the class is fast asleep. The time is not conducive to learning and given that learning is main objective of a school system, should be changed, regardless of the cost. At a recent board meeting, several board members and I made a motion for a 15-minute later start for next year, but the motion was defeated 4-4. But that to me is just a tiny loss that I still think we can overcome. I will attempt to make a motion at our upcoming budget meeting to put enough money in the budget to buy enough buses to change the time to 8 a.m. for the 2007-2008 school year.

"The balance between treating schools as individuals and equal institutions can be difficult, and that is why I think it is important for all school board members to go out into the community and learn about each and every school in their district."

EW: What are some other policies or motions have you drafted since being on the board that are or have been controversial?

Snider: At my first meeting, I made a motion to reject one of the grading policy changes. The change was to allow students to retake a class and get the new grade with the old grade being entirely erased from the GPA and transcript. While the proposal may help students who fail a class, the policy, if put into effect, would create an even more competitive environment among the top of the class. A student wanting to become valedictorian might retake algebra his or her senior year (when concurrently enrolled in calculus), get an A, and totally erase the B he or she got freshman year. The student probably would have been better off taking another class, but the incentive of erasing a grade might prompt retaking a class when it really isn't necessary.

I proposed a compromise calling for the old and new grades to be averaged on one's transcript. My motion, while catching plenty of attention in the papers the next day, failed. I think that motion started a chain of fairly controversial policies and motions I've made. School start times, revision of the school calendar, final exam policy, valedictorian policy, and credit for college-level classes have been some of my most controversial projects this year.

[In terms of final exams], right now eight exams are squeezed into a four-day period. I proposed that teachers of non-core subjects (anything except science, social studies, mathematics, and English) be given the option of assigning a project, paper, or performance instead of giving an exam. Not only would some of the student stress be eliminated, but this sort of evaluation might be more relevant to the course content in a class like theater arts or cooking.

[Regarding the valedictorian policy], I originally proposed eliminating the valedictorian/salutatorian designation for a summa cum laude/magna cum laude designation (something that most colleges and universities use), which would recognize more students for their academic success. I eventually modified my proposal to create a system with both a valedictorian/salutatorian designation and a summa cum laude/magna cum laude system.

[I also suggested that some courses, besides AP and International Baccalaureate (IB) be eligible for college credit.]

Most of these battles I've lost, a few I've won, and some I'm still working on. While the controversies holding many of these projects back are frustrating, hearing public opinion can sometimes give me ideas to alter proposals for the better.

EW: What are some things you've learned about the education system that you'd like to share?

Snider: Well, first of all, there is no one right answer in education. Anne Arundel County is huge with rural, urban, and suburban regions and students from extremely diverse backgrounds. The right educational decision for one school might not be the best for another. On the other hand, equity between schools should be maintained. The balance between treating schools as individuals and equal institutions can be difficult, and that is why I think it is important for all school board members to go out into the community and learn about every school in their district.

For me, the task has been difficult, because with 116 schools, there is a lot of ground to cover. However, in today's world, school board members can utilize technology to achieve the same goal. I have created an online forum for students in my county to discuss their school issues and I think it really helps me understand the diversity and complexities in the school system as well as the universal needs. The people living in the school system every day -- teachers, students, and parents -- can provide invaluable information to help school board members make educational decisions, and I hope other school systems employ similar methods to improve communication between the decision-makers and those affected every day by those decisions.

This e-interview with Pallas A. Snider is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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Copyright © 2006 Education World