Summit gives kids a voice

Better school lunches, improved interaction with teachers top list

May 02, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Students in Howard County schools want healthier, tastier and more affordable lunches. They want better interactions with their teachers and more time during the school day to catch up on work. They also want places that are fun to go to with their friends and student governments that truly represent everyone in the school.

These were some of the ideas that came out of a first Youth Summit, held at Marriotts Ridge High School on Friday. As many as 10 students from each of the 12 public high schools - as well as students from Glenelg Country School and several middle schools - participated in the summit, which tackled five issues: hang-out options, voicing concerns to adults, strengthening student government, quality of food and class schedules.

The students, chosen by school counselors to represent a diversity of voices, chose three topics of interest to them, and then were assigned to two, which they discussed with other students during hourlong sessions.

The idea for the youth summit began about a year ago with students who are involved in Connections, a Horizon Foundation program. It was sponsored by many groups, including Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, the Office of Citizen Services, Connections, the public school system, Vision Howard County and the Columbia Association.

"It really is interesting in that it puts young people in the role of recommending ideas and thoughts in terms of things that directly affect them," said Richard Krieg, chief executive officer and president of Horizon Foundation.

During the sessions, as many as 25 students hashed out such intricacies of teen life as how to advertise student government activities and whether students should be allowed off campus during lunch.

The groups were guided by youth facilitators, with one adult in each session jotting down ideas on large pieces of paper in the front of the room.

By Monday, Krieg had sorted through the writings and noted some of the key themes. A top priority for students, he said, is creating more community centers or other inexpensive options for hanging out.

Also topping the list of concerns: finding ways for students to "confidentially and appropriately give feedback to teachers." Students recognized that creating a venue for anonymous complaints could lead to abuse, Krieg said, but they were exploring other options.

Students also said they wanted student government to focus less on school spirit and more on advocating for student needs, he said.

On the issues of school food and class schedules, students seemed interested in finding out which schools are best, then replicating those practices throughout the county.

Krieg said he was impressed that the students worked together and demonstrated "a keen sense of feasibility" about what it would take to make their suggestions reality.

"I felt that it was a very productive meeting, and auspicious in terms of future decision-making," he said.

During one session on student government, most students seemed amazed as Sarah DeNapoli, 17, a senior at Mount Hebron and publicity manager for her student government, described an organization that was responsive to students and supported by the administration.

"They were dropping their jaws at everything I said," DeNapoli said. "A lot of them talked about how they don't communicate with their principals. I thought that was really horrible."

In fact, learning about what other schools do was a major part of the summit. "It's the first time that students from different schools have come together," Krieg said.

"I loved hearing about Mount Hebron's utopian SGA," said Rajani Ghosh, 15, a sophomore at Oakland Mills.

Lisa Veslany, assistant principal at Marriott's Ridge, sat in on a discussion about scheduling. "They all kind of came to the consensus that they would like a break during the day," she said. "It was interesting to me to hear what other schools do."

One attendee was Andrew Gavelek, 16, a junior at Reservoir High School. He will be the student representative on the Board of Education, starting in June, with partial voting rights.

"Right now, I'm just walking around and listening," he said. He had been in the student government meeting, he said. "I'm hearing that a lot of schools don't have strong SGAs."

Obi Ukwuoma, 16, a junior at Oakland Mills, said he liked that "we got to talk about issues that we have in school." He said the summit is a "good idea," but he said he is not sure whether anything concrete will come of it.

After the sessions, students gathered to hear remarks from County Executive Ken Ulman. "The vast majority of our budget goes to youth, and yet we don't hear from you," he said. "The fact is, we want to hear from you."

He presented a proclamation to Brianna Bradford, 15, a sophomore at Reservoir High who has been helping organize the event since August.

The next step, said Krieg, is for interested students to take those themes and turn them into concrete proposals. He said he expects that students will bring some sort of report to the Board of Education, possibly by the end of the school year.

"It's kind of up to them to move this forward in a way that gives it a good chance to succeed," he said of the students.

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