With social media, student school board members exercise influence

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010

Tim Hwang wasn't old enough to vote for Barack Obama. But that didn't prevent the Rockville teenager from volunteering for the campaign or taking pages from Obama's playbook in his own successful run for office.

Hwang, a senior at Wootton High School, was elected a student member of the Montgomery County school board last year, in part by campaigning among the county's 142,000 students with a Web site modeled on Obama's.

Hwang is the only board member with a blog, he has a volunteer staff of about 20, he posts videos about education issues on YouTube, and he has held town hall-style meetings at which students have been able to air their concerns.

Obama won big on college campuses. But as Hwang and other student leaders in the Washington area show, middle schools and high schools were taking notes, too.

"A lot of the stuff I did came from the Obama campaign," Hwang said. "One of the big untapped things that people hadn't looked at was social media," which, he said, help students become more involved in nitty-gritty local issues. "It's very easy for them to debate abortion but more difficult to debate what's happening in their own back yard," he said.

Most school boards in the Washington area have student members, but they often seem like stage dressing rather than important parts of the cast. In many Northern Virginia school districts, a different student holds the post every month. The students aren't elected, and they don't vote.

Hwang was elected by Montgomery's middle and high school students. He and Edward Burroughs III, Hwang's student counterpart in Prince George's County, vote on most issues, although not on some of the most crucial ones the board faces, such as the budget and personnel. They both pushed hard this year, unsuccessfully, for full voting rights.

But Hwang points to some triumphs. He advocated a change to a policy that gave students a failing grade after five unexcused absences, something that he said alienated teenagers and made them more likely to drop out.

In Prince George's, Burroughs is the only student to have been elected twice, officials say: in 2008, when he was a junior, and last year, as a senior. That has given him more time to learn the issues and fully take part in Prince George's sometimes complicated political life -- such as when he unsuccessfully tried to dethrone the board's vice chairman and nominated a board ally to the position instead.

Burroughs said he has been able to advocate for student-friendly policies in his time on the board. Students seem to treat him as their link not only to the school board but also to the county government in general.

"I had a student Facebook-message me and ask me if I could call [County Executive] Jack Johnson and tell him [his] street isn't plowed yet," Burroughs said. "I said, 'Sure, I'll tell him that my street isn't plowed, either.' "

In Montgomery, full vote or not, Hwang has made an impression on many school board watchers.

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