Giving students voice on board Commissioner: Shannon Christmas, 15 and a member of the city school board, has been integrally involved in the decisions affecting students in Baltimore.

The Education Beat

January 28, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT'S BEEN a heady year for 15-year-old Shannon Christmas.

In the spring, city high school student leaders elected Shannon to represent them on the new Baltimore school board. Since then, he's been an active, albeit nonvoting, commissioner. He's participated in the hiring of an interim chief executive officer and the search for a new one. He's helped forge the city-state school "partnership," reorganize the central administration and put in place a new method of evaluating teachers.

Shannon was interviewed between final examinations at City College, where he is a sophomore.

Education Beat: You were elected by fellow student leaders. What are the students' priorities?

Shannon Christmas: We need a citywide core curriculum. There's a lack of consistency in the quality of instruction, and here in Baltimore the mobility rate of students is just staggering. We should have a curriculum where all the students in a grade are learning this in September and this in January.

Our new teacher evaluation plan is a great step forward. Basically, there's a lack of consistency in the quality of teaching. We should have world-class standards.

This board has been working almost full time since it was appointed last summer. Have you been involved as heavily as the other commissioners, and have they included you fully in their deliberations?

Absolutely. I've been on the planning committee, and I work for the board every Tuesday and many Thursdays. I've been in on interviewing candidates for the top jobs. The board has been supportive, encouraging and at times protective. The board has been working so closely together for so long that it seems they've been friends forever.

The word "commissioner" comes from the Latin word meaning (( "to commit," and we're all committed to making Baltimore the best school system in the nation.

Do you think the student member of the board should have a vote?

That's one of my priorities. I think it's undemocratic that the student member can't fully represent his constituents. The student board member in Anne Arundel has a vote. I'd like to see that changed in Baltimore in this legislative session.

What Baltimore needs to do is stop worrying about what the parents want, stop worrying about what the administrators and the politicians want, and pay more attention to what the students want and need.

The neighborhood high schools in the city are clearly troubled. What can be done about them?

First of all, they're too large. There are too many students and not enough administrators, not enough support. We're pushing hard for smaller learning communities within the big schools.

The troubles at Northern High School could have been avoided if we had greater parent involvement. It all goes back to the breakdown of the American family. Every small thing, like what happened at Northern, goes back to a big thing, like the breakdown of the family.

Speaking of families, what did your parents think of your becoming a member of a school board?

They were surprised when I first told them, and they didn't really feel the effects until the day the other board members were selected.

Then things changed in the way I was perceived at home and at school. Sometimes the other students put me on a pedestal, and I don't really want them to. And there are other students who come to me with problems and demands. I like hearing them, because it brings me back to what's important, and that's reflecting what the students need and what they want.

Do you get lobbied by adults, too?

I wasn't home at the time, but a PTA member called. She was worried about her school's principal. There had been a lot of community backlash against this principal, and she wanted my support to keep the principal.

What can you tell me about the search for a chief executive officer? Have you narrowed down the list of candidates?

I don't want to go into details. We're working hard to find someone who is almost ideal, someone who has a philosophy, who's a good communicator and who's ready to be a change agent.

There are more applicants for the permanent job than there were for the interim job. In this search, there's a wide range of applicants from a variety of marketplaces and school systems.

How do you assess the progress made by the system?

Financially, it seemed a mess when I became a board member last June 1. And the way people in the central office acted when the new board was appointed last summer was sad. It seemed everybody was packing their bags, moving elsewhere. There was a general lack of support for the system.

Now I think our initiatives are starting to make a difference. We're trying to make this a system of educational excellence, and people are no longer taking their students out of the system; they're putting them back in.

What does the future hold for Shannon Christmas?

Right now, I've narrowed my colleges down to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown and Georgetown, and I'm thinking about Columbia. I'm very pleased with City College because this school is the best public school that could prepare me for those colleges.

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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