When the superintendent of public schools in Fayette County, Ky., resigned late last year, students wanted to have a real say in hiring his replacement. But state law prohibited them from sitting on the selection committee.
So the students decided they’d try to change the law.
They drafted a bill that would give young people a seat at the table, allowing students to hold one seat on committees that screen superintendent applicants and make hiring recommendations to local school boards. On Tuesday, the students announced that a state lawmaker has agreed to introduce their legislation.
“We have a perspective that is currently not being heard,” said Eliza Jane Schaeffer, a 16-year-old junior at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, one of those leading the effort. “We would be the only person on the committee who is actually in school for 35 hours a week and knows how the superintendents’ decisions affect students. We are living it.”
Schaeffer is part of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, a statewide organization of middle- and high-school students that works to give young people a chance to weigh in on state and local education policy.
To Schaeffer, the fact that students can’t sit on superintendent hiring committees is just one symptom of a broader problem: Adults who run schools rarely ask students how those schools are – or aren’t – working.
At her overcrowded high school, she said, students could make valuable contributions to nitty-gritty questions about how to best structure the daily class and lunch schedule. But there’s no forum for them to be heard.
“We have a student council, but we do homecoming and prom, not much past that,” she said. More-substantive decisions are made by a different council composed of parents, teachers and administrators, she said. Students are allowed to attend those council meetings, but they’re not allowed to speak.
“I’m serious,” she said. “It’s very frustrating.”
In their quest to change the state slaw, Schaeffer and the group of students has won the support of the Fayette County school board, which recently passed a resolution calling on the Kentucky legislature to pass the students’ bill.
The board has not yet hired a replacement for the superintendent who resigned last year. As the search gets underway, chairman John Price said he and his colleagues are doing everything they can to gather input from students, including through focus groups and surveys.
“Who is most impacted by the superintendent and what the board of education does? It’s our students,” Price said.
Rep. Derrick Graham (D-Frankfort), a retired high school teacher and chairman of the House education committee, said he was moved by the passion on display when a dozen students visited his office to lobby for their bill. Graham plans to introduce the legislation in the coming days.
“Students are the major stakeholders,” Graham said. “Why not have them engaged in the process?”