Member offers youthful insight Meade High senior serves as students' voice on school board

November 30, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

From her seat second from the left on the school board podium, Marina Harrison has found a new view of the public's role in school decision making.

"I didn't know what I was walking into," said the 17-year-old Meade High School senior. "I used to think public participation was entertaining."

Harrison, the only voting student board member in Maryland, began her term only a week after the board had voted to make $9 million in budget cuts, including reductions in the number of school bus routes.

Dozens of Windsor Farm Elementary School parents showed up at the July 8 meeting to tell the board exactly how unhappy they were that their young children would be coming home in the near dark.

It was loud and rude, with parents shouting that a 4: 30 p.m. dismissal time was a safety hazard on winter afternoons.

"That was my first meeting and there were three hours of public participation," she remembered.

The four months since have been a particularly tumultuous time for the board. Harrison has witnessed a contentious school budget process, a debate over the classroom assignment of Maya Angelou's book "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and a county executive race waged largely over the issue of public schools.

"When I first started on the board, I was like, 'Whoa, do you expect me to understand all of this right away?' " she said.

Of course not. Rodell Phaire, director of school planning and construction explained the capital budget process. Superintendent Carol S. Parham and other board members introduced her to jargon like COLA (cost of living allowance) and MSPAP (Maryland School Performance Assessment Program).

She looked to former student member Chris Barbour for advice, and he tried to prepare her for the long and sometimes tedious meetings.

"But he really couldn't, I mean, he told me the horrors of it, staying at meetings until 1 a.m., but now I really know," she said.

Although energetic and talkative most of the time, she appears reserved during board meetings, rarely asking questions or making many points.

She says she hates redundancy.

"If someone makes the same point I wanted to make, then I don't need to say it again," she said. "Not everything needs to be nit-picked."

Harrison, elected to the board by middle and high school students, said she thought the job was the next natural step up from her position as second vice president of the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils.

The demanding assignment takes time away from school and friends. She must attend all meetings, workshops and hearings -- such as the weeklong hearing called when an Edgewater couple sought to ban Angelou's autobiographical account of her youth in the Deep South from classes. The couple thought its sexually explicit passages were inappropriate for ninth-graders.

"I can understand the parents' point of view," she said. "But what I didn't like about the process was that one parent's complaint -- which eventually led to others -- could affect the learning of all ninth-graders. For one parent to change the whole curriculum, that is a huge step."

Harrison keeps a schedule that would exhaust most adults. Up at 6 a.m., she is on the road in her blue 1988 Chevrolet Caprice and in school by 6: 45 a.m.

After a full day of classes that include advanced placement English and economics, she can be found practicing with her dance company, Meade in Motion, in the school gym.

After that, it's home to Patuxent Glen for a quick change and off PTC again to a board meeting or a Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils meeting.

Public school was a big change for Harrison, who attended a Defense Department school at Fort Bragg in South Carolina before her family moved to this area.

"We had money; there was no budget talks," she said of the schools operated by the federal government. "When schools needed something, it went to the base commander."

Pub Date: 11/30/98

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