When talk turns to teacher pay raises or stress among students, a voice will speak out for the 120,000 young people in Fairfax County public schools.
Kim Willoughby, a 16-year-old junior at Langley High School, plans to be active in her new position as student representative to the Fairfax County School Board. And she's already learned a little about playing politics to get what she wants.
Willoughby turned around a tough student government election -- against a more experienced candidate -- to win the right to represent her classmates. After a preliminary loss to her opponent, Willoughby said she boned up on public speaking and rallied her forces to take the real race.
Beginning in July, she will attend School Board meetings twice a month.
Although Willoughby won't have a vote on the board, she will get paid the standard $35-per-meeting stipend, and the articulate teen-ager will bring along a sizable agenda for the coming year. Her list of concerns includes improving conditions for teachers, reducing stress among students and offering more time for electives.
The key to her success, Willoughby believes, will be good communication. "I'm basically there to tell what student issues are and make the School Board listen," she said. "It's one thing that they have their token student. It's a whole different story to make them not just listen, but act."
Contrary to typical student-teacher conflicts, Willoughby puts teacher pay raises at the top of her list. "Students are getting a lot more teacher-conscious," she explained. "It's incredible what they do for so little money. Not only are they baby-sitters for eight hours a day, they influence us more than anyone wants to believe. Then they take work home, and they're also friends."
Willoughby also plans to push for student input on teacher evaluations. "It's not to get a teacher blacklisted," she said, but simply to include their comments along with the many other factors considered.
Especially as exam and graduation time approaches, stress is "a big problem" in Fairfax County high schools, Willoughby said. In her new role, she would like to see a handbook distributed teaching students how to cope and how to manage their time better. Willoughby also suggested creating a "peer counseling" program through which students could help each other during high-pressure periods.
Willoughby would like to see a current pilot program expanded across the entire school system. The new program creates an extra class period during the day -- in the early morning hours -- for students to take courses. This way, they can add an elective class such as art or cooking, into their schedule. "Students can learn things that are a little less rigorous and a little more fun," she said.
And what about the usual teen-age problems of smoking and drugs? Willoughby said the two are "out," along with drinking and driving, and shouldn't become pressing issues during the coming year. "It's just not the thing to do anymore," she said.
And what is "in" these days? Willoughby says "getting good grades" and points to her class at Langley as "a shining example."