Student group gains stature

Association spurs change inside and outside of schools

`We can make a difference'

November 19, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

On many weeknights, when most of their peers are settled in for a restful night of Must See TV, these students are out at board or committee meetings in stuffy conference rooms, swimming in paperwork.

And when the biggest topic in school is which of the in-crowd will be voted "Best Dressed" or "Cutest Smile," these students are lobbying for policies that will make it more likely for them to succeed.

It's subtle differences like those in these enterprising teen-agers that some say are making this year's Howard County Association of Student Councils one of the most active and successful groups in recent history.

"We're really excited about the direction we're headed in this year," said Tiffany Clay, the association's treasurer and a senior at Centennial High School. "We have a really great group of people working on the staff and the officers team. We work really well together."

Made up of a group of five officers, an executive board and at least one delegate from each of the county's 10 high schools, work - for this lobbying group of future leaders - is the operative word.

In addition to their regular school work, applying for colleges and holding down part-time jobs, this school year alone, members have been involved in many hard-hitting issues, school- and community-related.

They've organized cancer walks and Sept. 11-related blood drives, sponsored Muslim-awareness nights and held leadership seminars. They've lobbied for lighting on high school football fields and more middle school involvement in student issues.

A member sits on Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's Equity Council and several participate in the state association of student councils. Members are present at PTSA and boundary line meetings.

Redistricting role

Members are so involved with redistricting - a hot-button topic this year - that they're trying to organize a meeting to better understand each of three plans to re-draw next year's high school boundary lines so they can endorse one.

"We want to make sure there's a student opinion heard wherever there's a decision made," said Alice Giles, an Atholton High senior and the group's legislative chairwoman.

Wilde Lake senior Dan Furman, an association officer and student member of the Board of Education, staged a coup for the organization and for county students this year when he lobbied to change a long-standing board policy that he felt squelched that opportunity for hearing student voices.

This month, the board approved a new student representation policy - written by Furman - that would allow the student member to cast an "opinion vote." The vote won't be tallied with those of board members, but will be considered symbolic of an official student voice.

Board members praised Furman for his zeal and persistence when they cast their votes supporting him. His first vote will be recorded in January.

That foray into such a major part of school system decision-making was one more accomplishment for association members to keep pressing for student rights.

"We think, wow! We really are a powerful organization. We can make a difference, and it really is inspiring," Clay said.

In years past, the group has faced a number of challenges.

Group diehards found it difficult to find students interested in dedicating the time, effort and maturity to be part of the association, members said. Public relations was also an issue; many students and administrators mistakenly lumped their group with school-based student government associations.

Conquering challenges

This year's officers are working to conquer those challenges, once and for all - so future organizations can build on what they've started.

"I really feel like this year, things are coming together like they never have before," Furman said, pointing to the busy schedules of his co-officers, and their passion for student voices being used as agents of change.

Members have staged individual as well as group campaigns to make more people understand their mission and goals, he said - and to encourage more of their peers to capitalize on their unique positions of leadership.

That's why, Giles said, the association is "trying to branch out and extend the idea that we [students] really can effect change."

Clay said not everyone has to be as meeting-happy and politically minded as this year's members to make a difference. Students need to know they have power right where they are.

"I think that everyone can really be a leader in their communities just by being an active citizen," she said. "I think just by knowing what's going on around you, and saying your opinion in ways that are meaningful to the rest of your community, those things can be just as helpful."

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