With social media, student school board members exercise influence

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010; B01

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.

At a hearing on the county budget last week, Charles Feamster, an assistant principal at Watkins Mill High School, leaned over to a colleague and pointed out Hwang with admiration. Feamster said he didn't know Hwang but had heard him speak.

"He's a phenomenal speaker, and he really does a good job making the student perspective heard," Feamster said.

Not everybody is convinced that student members have a deep impact on the board's business.

Other members say they respect Hwang, "but I can't see how they really consider him a peer. He's a teenager," said Louis Wilen, a frequent critic of the school system. But, he said, "it gives students a feeling that they have some say," adding that Hwang in particular has been good at driving student involvement.

Alex Abdun-Nabi, 16, a junior at Winston Churchill High in Potomac, said he had never been involved in student government before he saw a public Facebook query from Hwang seeking volunteers. Abdun-Nabi sent a response and became projects director. He organizes events and does other outreach work.

"A lot of students . . . don't realize that they can make a difference," he said at the budget hearing last week, where he was one of about a dozen students in a room that overflowed with union groups and parents. He plans to be involved in board work next year as well.

A number of students have used their board service as a springboard to later involvement with schools. Heather Iliff, a member of the Prince George's school board, served on the Anne Arundel school board when she was in high school. Anne Arundel is the only county in the nation that extends full voting rights to a student, officials say.

In Prince George's, Burroughs is planning to attend the University of Maryland and has been mentioned as a possible candidate this fall for a regular school board seat, as has David H. Murray, who lives in Prince George's and is the student member of the Maryland State Board of Education.

But future board members beware: It's a lot of work. Hwang said he spends 20 to 30 hours a week on board work. He's able to do it in part because he has enough credits to attend school only in the morning.

"A lot of times I'll come home at 11 at night, and my mom will ask, 'Where were you?' And I'll say, 'Mom, I was at a budget work session,' " Hwang said.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company