Many in the huge audience at last fall's "back to school" breakfast were getting bored until Monica Jones started speaking.
Talking in forceful yet graceful tones, she electrified the audience and brought most to their feet -- something even the school board president and the superintendent had failed to do.
Jones, 16, an 11th grade honors student at Coolidge High School in Northwest and this year's student representative on the school board, has a way of getting people to notice her.
She became the youngest student to serve on the board when she won a plurality of the votes cast by a 186-member student assembly formed to elect the school board representative. She plans to run for reelection this spring.
Jones represents more than 85,000 students, serves a one-year term and can speak on all issues before the board, except labor matters, but she has no vote at board meetings. She can vote in board committees. In the next few months, she said, she will try to win the right to vote in official board meetings.
She spends 12 to 15 hours a week at her job, receives a salary of $50 per meeting she attends and has the use of a chauffeur-driven car.
Her record includes: Helping to lobby for passage of a rule requiring students who participate in extracurricular activities to maintain a C average. The board has asked school officials to write such a rule. Successfully lobbying the school board to approve a plan to allow students to evaluate teachers who agree to be appraised. The evaluations have begun on an experimental basis in eight schools.
"One of the best ways to make students serious about education is to allow them to evaluate their teachers," she said. "We'll be able to look at the evaluation forms and tell where a teacher's strengths and weaknesses are. If students say too much homework is being given, perhaps the teacher is giving too much material to them too fast and other methods of teaching may be needed." Organizing the city's first student convention, which was held at the Washington Convention Center last month. The conclave focused on academic performance and political involvement. Mayor Marion Barry invited her to his office to offer his help in planning the event. Persuading the board to establish a hot line to receive comments from students on a wide variety of issues.
"By providing a medium through which students can make their opinions heard, we hope to stimulate them to evaluate what's going on and take stands on issues," she explained. "We want to let students know that their opinions count," she said. The hot line will be installed this year, she said.
School board President R. David Hall and other board members have said they would support giving voting rights to the student representative, but Hall added that Congress has ultimate approval.
She brings to the board the view from the classroom, she said in a recent interview in her cramped office at school board headquarters at 415 12th St. NW.
Other board members "don't go to school every day like I do," she said, "so they don't have firsthand experience with what's going on. I can see how the decisions they make affect the schools. I can talk to lots of students and teachers, too, and I can offer meaningful information about improvements that need to be made. That makes my position valuable."
She recalled her first board meeting. "I was surprised and excited just being there, but I felt afraid," she said. "I knew I wanted to be on the board, but I wasn't sure that they would accept me as their colleague and as a child at the same time."
Hall said of Jones, "She is wise beyond her years. I see her as a colleague and a peer. She has demonstrated great talents as a board representative. She's a dynamic orator, and I respect her highly.
"She's become more than an observer, she's a participant in the process," he said. "Usually, it takes people a long time to figure out which way is up when they enter a new situation, but she knew what she wanted to do right away. She came in with a plan, and most of the proposals she has presented to the board have been carried out."
Jones visits about three schools a week, inspecting buildings and talking to students.
Even with her hectic schedule, she has maintained a 3.5 grade-point average. Her teachers often give her take-home assignments so she will not fall behind when she misses classes.
She lives with her aunt and uncle, both retired federal government workers, in their home near Coolidge, which draws its students from the surrounding quiet neighborhoods.
She plans to become a lawyer and a politician, she said, and her hobbies include acting.
"She'll probably be mayor of D.C. or have some higher office one day," said Coolidge Principal James Campbell. "She's very idealistic and very committed to high ideals. She always asks, 'Why can't we have things better?' That's one of her strengths."