Like most college sophomores, Raaheela Ahmed isn’t sure what she wants to be when she grows up.
At one point she thought maybe a business executive. Now she’s leaning more toward a lawyer.
But one thing is for certain, Ahmed said. She wants to give back to the public school system where she earned a diploma. And she wants to do it now.
That’s why at age 19 Ahmed is challenging Board of Education Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (District 5) for a seat on the board of Maryland’s second-largest school system.
She is one of three college students — all younger than 21 — competing in the Prince George’s school board election in November.
“Because I just came out of [school], the timing just felt right,” said Ahmed, who led three organizations in high school and maintained an A average at the University of Maryland at College Park last semester. “I think I can make the most impact because of what I just saw.”
Ahmed is running her first campaign for elected office. David Murray, 20, a former student member of the Maryland State Board of Education who narrowly lost two years ago to retiring county school board member Rosalind Johnson (District 1), is hoping to fill that open seat. And Edward Burroughs (District 8), who turned 20 on Saturday, an incumbent who also served two terms as a student board member, is running for reelection.
It is not unusual for a teenager to serve on the board of a small school system, experts say. But three board members younger than 21 in a system that serves 123,000 students would be rare.
Alexis Rice, a spokeswoman for the National School Boards Association, said a 2010 survey found that only 4.6 percent of school board members were younger than 40.
“I think it’s phenomenal,” Rice said of the young candidates’ involvement in Prince George’s.
But Nicole Nelson, vice president of the Parent Teacher Student Association Board at John Hanson Montessori School in Oxon Hill, is not so certain.
“A mix would be nice, but I can’t see having three young people leading the school district,” Nelson said. “I think experience does count when it comes to managing a $1.6 billion budget.”
Prince George’s board has nine regular members and one student member who is excluded from voting on many key issues.
If elected, the college students would take office at a critical time. The new board is expected to replace outgoing Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who announced in July that he was leaving to take the schools chief position in Philadelphia. The board must also deal with dwindling enrollment, the lack of trust many parents have in public schools and the increase in the number of students from low-income families attending them.
“We bring a level of commitment, dedication and energy that many believe the school board has lacked,” said Burroughs, a junior at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. “I believe we’re willing to take on the tough issues.”
All three students were top vote-getters in the April primaries and are gearing up for the Nov. 6 election.
Ahmed is challenging Jacobs, a lawyer; Burroughs will face Andre Nottingham, an education consultant who previously worked at the University of Maryland; and Murray will face Zabrina Epps, an academic adviser and adjunct communications instructor at Community College at Baltimore County-Catonsville.
Nottingham said he worries about a system led by three young board members.
“It comes down to experience,” he said. “We’re at a critical juncture with school leadership. If the young people are elected to the board, they will be the supervisors to the new superintendent. . . . It puts the system and the county in a challenging situation.”
But Larry Stafford, president of the Prince George’s County Young Democrats, said his organization is part of a coalition that has endorsed Ahmed, Burroughs and Murray. He said the three offer what schools need to move forward.
His group plans to knock on doors, canvass neighborhoods and make phone calls for the three candidates. Stafford said he was not surprised by their strong showing in the nonpartisan primary elections. Burroughs received 67 percent of the vote in his race; Murray captured 56 percent; and Ahmed — viewed by many as the underdog against Jacobs — won 36 percent.
“People are upset,” Stafford said. “They want change and they want something better.”
Stafford said that some members of the political establishment have raised concerns about the young candidates, but many voters have shown that they don’t share those concerns.
Burroughs, who has been on the board as a student member since he was 15 and was elected as an adult member two years ago, is the veteran of the group.
He said it was a “natural progression” for him to run for the student member position because he was active in student government.
“The decision to run for the adult seat was more difficult to make,” said Burroughs, who is a double major in education policy and political science. “It would require going to school in the state of Maryland. . . . People would say, ‘You are not going to have fun and why stay in state when you could go just about anywhere?’. . . But I love this county and I truly believe our school system can do better and must be better.”
Murray, a junior at UMBC, said his first-hand experience in college makes him a good candidate.
“I think being in college gives me a great perspective because the most important thing is that we graduate students from our system and make them ready for college,” Murray said. “Unfortunately, we are not doing that like others in the state.”
The candidates say it is a mere coincidence, not a coordinated effort, that they are all on the ballot together.
The three know each other. Burroughs and Murray are friends from past student-member involvement. They are now getting to know Ahmed. The two also lent their names to a business venture by Shukoor Ahmed, Raaheela’s father, that Edwards says never got off the ground.
“There is no countywide slate or young people takeover,” Burroughs said. “I wish all the other young candidates well, but I am focusing on my district and they are focusing on their district.”