High-school students McKenna Roberts and Pavan Venkatakrishnan come from very different places in Washington state. But on many things, these two members of the Washington Board of Education agree.
Chief among those causes: the right for students like themselves to move beyond their advisory roles and actually vote on the decisions the Board makes and that affect students every day — including what students need to complete in order to graduate, and how schools take attendance.
Roberts, 17, goes to Okanogan High School, a rural area where 55% of votes in the last election went to former president Donald Trump. Before joining the Board last summer, she was an advocate of comprehensive sex education in Washington school districts.
Venkatakrishnan, a 15-year-old Kentucky native now living in Bellevue, helped organize Seattle area fundraising events for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign. The Interlake High School student joined the Board this month.
The Board is responsible for developing education policies, making recommendations to state lawmakers and approving requests to establish public, charter and private schools in Washington state. It is comprised of 14 voting members — who are mostly selected either through a gubernatorial appointment or special election process — and two student representatives selected by the Association of Washington Student Leaders.
As the Board considers making an official request to state lawmakers for student voting power this fall, The Seattle Times spoke with these aspiring policy and legal minds about their experiences in school, and the value of giving youth more than symbolic input.
Their interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to join the Board?
Roberts: I decided to apply because I felt like I had a really interesting perspective on education, especially coming from such a rural community. … I looked back at all the previous student members on the board, and there were very few that came from rural communities. It was mostly the larger urban areas.
Venkatakrishnan: I’m really interested in anything to do with government and how it functions. And this was a unique opportunity.
What issues are you the most passionate about addressing while you’re on the Board?
Roberts: My biggest push on the Board so far was that ethnic studies graduation requirement. … My focus (is) equity and racial equity and combating systemic racism. … And now my biggest concern is actually the role of student voice on the board. Lately we’ve been having tough conversations about why the student members are the only members on the board that don’t have an official vote.
Venkatakrishnan: The student voting rights thing is a big deal to me. You start at the foundation of how the board functions, you move it in the direction of students, and then it’s a lot easier to make progress on other policy fronts, because you’re making sure that the board itself as an institution is responsive. And the second biggest thing is graduation requirements and pathways.
What’s the current status of students on the Board?
Roberts: Usually when we vote on rules or anything, our Board chair will ask for our student advisory vote and we can say we support or we abstain from the vote. Then he moves on to the actual voting members. … I think what that represents to us is that student voice has become the new, cool thing for groups of adults to partake in. … It’s kind of like a sock puppet on the hand and students are the sock puppet. Remember who’s on whose hand here. It creates this incredibly difficult power dynamic for students to actually feel heard.
What are some examples from your life where you felt policy wasn’t written for students?
Venkatakrishnan: One of the things I’ve noticed is in this online school environment — assignments are based on like video submissions during this COVID period. I have a speech impediment … You’re recording eight, nine times for an assignment that most kids are doing once. That’s not maybe policy as much as it is teachers having to adapt … but that was a part I noticed that was crafted in a way to respond to as many students as possible, but it ended up being really onerous.
Roberts: I’d probably say like the graduation pathways, coming from such a rural community. I had to drive like an hour just to take an SAT. It’s broad but it’s narrow at the same time. It feels like there’s a couple ways, but then when you look at my situation, it’s just like, “Oh, can’t do that one. Can’t do that one, that one’s not available.” There aren’t enough CTE courses to even like consider the CTE pathway. It just knocks (options off) until the last thing left is state testing, but we haven’t had state testing yet. And not everybody passes the state test.
You both referenced some of the challenges created by the pandemic. What did the last school year look like for you?
Roberts: … We went back (in-person) in October, which felt really early for me. My mom … works in a nursing home and my elderly grandpa lives with us. So I actually didn’t go back … until after spring break in April. I was one of the probably 15% of kids at my school that were online for the duration of my junior year. It was really hard, very isolating. We had to eliminate an elective just cause we were so short on time with our hybrid schedule. … When I came back in person, I walked into my art class and my art teacher didn’t even know who I was. She thought I was in the wrong class. … I would have felt comfortable going back earlier if I felt like my school district cared about COVID. A lot of my classmates and even teachers weren’t enforcing people to pull their masks up and everything, which is a huge reason I didn’t want to go back.
Venkatakrishnan: We went back in-person in April. … I think I adapted pretty well to being remote. I managed to complete most of my assignments on time. I think the difference was the social isolation. I think what scared me is I adapted to that too. I didn’t even sense it. And that’s a really worrying thing for me. I went through this whole thing where I wasn’t interacting with anyone basically. And I pulled through.
After the past year, what should schools be focusing on to help students?
Roberts: Teachers and school districts should be focused on student mental health. I’m coming from this personally. I think that this is probably been the worst year and a half of my entire life and probably every student and person in this state. I think that a lot of damage has been done that isn’t just going to go away because we’re going back in person. Going back in person for some students might even worsen their mental health. School districts and teachers just need to make it clear and have grace with those students.
Venkatakrishnan: We should be focused on whether or not students are truly prepared for the year that they’re going to get, and filling in the gaps they may have from the last year and this online school environment. It’s a great disservice to students if we proceed like last year was normal. Like kids met every educational requirement — because they didn’t. I’m sure they didn’t. If we proceed like that, we’re going to hobble students for the rest of their educational careers.