After a couple weeks of nonstop planning, hours on Zoom calls, hundreds of emails, a great deal of sorting through questions, numerous outreach efforts, and staying up way past what many consider to be a normal bed time, we, the members of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, concluded our series of virtual town halls with school board candidates and board members. We organized these town halls as part of Our Schools, Our Boards, Our Elections, an initiative launched by Student Voice, a nationwide organization that positions students as advocates for student-driven solutions to educational inequity. The Student Voice Team, a group of students across the state of Kentucky that work through research, policy, and advocacy to improve Kentucky schools, organized town halls in Fayette County, Danville Independent District, Boone County, and Jefferson County. The guests included candidates running for district school boards and current school board members. These forums were moderated by Student Voice Team members from the respective counties.
While so much attention has been placed on nationwide elections, it’s important for us to understand that local elections shape policies that directly impact our daily lives, meaning they’re tantamount to even the presidential race that so much attention has been drawn to. Through our town halls, we hoped to integrate student voice into our districts’ school boards and shine a light on the important civic responsibility of informed voting.
In addition to the town halls organized directly by members of the Student Voice Team, we were able to use our experience to help a local Christian County teacher organize a town hall in Christian County. We provided thorough support, resources, and guidance to our collaborators in Christian County. With our guidance, the facilitators of this town hall were able to promote a constructive dialogue.
Organizing these town halls required a multifaceted approach. We were responsible for inviting candidates and/or board members, reaching out to our target audiences, formulating questions, creating social media graphics, moderating the town halls, and ensuring that major community questions and concerns were addressed. Through planning these town halls, we noticed several snags and hitches with local elections in general, and district school board elections specifically.
One of the most challenging parts of organizing these town halls was the first step: identifying who the candidates even were. This information was not “common knowledge” to us, unlike the candidates for senate or president. After trying several Google searches, we found some names listed on a few websites.
Next on our long to-do list was contacting the school board candidates and/or members. The majority of candidates had an easily accessible campaign Facebook page where they listed their email address. Some, however, were harder to reach. When organizing the Fayette County town hall, we had immense difficulty reaching two of the candidates. They either did not have a campaign Facebook page, or their email was inactive. We were eventually able to reach these candidates via a phone number provided to us by a local journalist and a text on Facebook messenger. These candidates expressed great interest in the town hall, and we are extremely grateful for their attendance.
When organizing the Danville Independent district town hall we encountered a similar difficulty. Once again, after being unable to find contact information from the internet, we had to resort to an unorthodox method of obtaining this knowledge — contacting central office employees.
This lack of information about school board elections and school board candidates is concerning. Stalking Facebook should not be the primary way voters can get information about school board candidates. One of the principles of democracy is informed voting. Seeing as the information given on school board members is minimal, gaining insights on their goals, perspective, and plans is an arduous process for average voters. Rather than making an educated selection on election day, some of these average voters resort to a game of chance. “I’ll just pick the first one I see,” said one voter in our community when asked if they were voting for candidates running for Fayette County School Boards.
Hosting these town halls was a major step in educating students and voters on the importance of school board elections. It gave candidates a platform to answer questions from the constituents that they are running to serve. A Fayette county resident and voter said, “Based on the answers the candidates gave in the town hall, it is now clear to me who to vote for.”
With the difficulty of contacting participants behind us, we moved on to our next task: outreach. We directly contacted high school and middle school principals, PTSAs, teachers, and students. In addition, we posted on several social media platforms to reach community members. The lack of responses or interest shown from PTSAs and principals came as a shock to us. There are eighteen total middle and high schools in Fayette County. The principals of all of these schools were contacted; however, only one principal replied to our email. This principal was very receptive to helping us spread the word about the town hall and agreed to share the information with all staff at the school. Unfortunately, we had no such anomalies with the PTSAs contacted. Out of the seven PTSA presidents contacted, we received zero replies. This surprised us because PTSAs are one of the main representative bodies of their respective schools. Members on the PTSA are involved greatly with the school and the education system in general. PTSAs sharing information about the town hall and having their members attend seemed like a given.
A personal connection with a former PTSA president at a Fayette County middle school gave us some insight into potential reasons that we did not receive a reply. We were told that the email given on the PTSA website was rarely checked. The information listed on the PTSA president and members was also not updated for the 2020–2021 school year. So we were either emailing an inactive account or emailing someone who, quite possibly, no longer had any connection with the school’s PTSA. This, once again, shows a concerning lack of accessible communication within our education system. PTSAs are one of the ways parents/guardians, students, and teachers can make their voice heard in their school’s decisions. They should always be reachable, but especially now, when virtual communication is our only option.
Student Interest in Town Halls
One of our major goals in hosting these town halls was to incorporate student voice into our education system. Our largest target audience was students. We wanted to provide a place for students to voice their concerns and submit questions for school board candidates and/or board members. Modeling the town halls based on student experiences and having student facilitators was also intended to serve as a reminder to candidates/board members that students are the ones impacted by their policies. We emailed various teachers to forward information about the town hall to their students. Many sent us confirmation of their efforts. Students represented the largest sector from our RSVP demographic data. Plenty of students submitted questions they wished to be addressed in the town halls. We consider this to be a great first step in directly involving student perspectives into school board decisions as well as getting students more involved with their education system. One Fayette County student said, “I definitely have a better understanding of what issues the school board is supposed to handle….I’m glad the town hall included so many questions from students and educators, especially the ones relating to safely re-entering school and supporting disadvantaged students.” Another student, one whom I personally had to bribe with candy to get them to attend, said that they felt that the town hall was “surprisingly entertaining.”
While all of our town halls had great student turnout, we recognize that we have a long way to go in fully engaging students as partners in education policy making. We initially planned for a primarily student audience; however, despite the large number of students who knew about the event, our audience consisted of less than 50% students.
For several of our town halls, we sent out an RSVP link that asked the participants to submit any questions they would like board members and candidates to address. We were ecstatic to see such an extensive number of questions coming from teachers, students, and community members. They covered a vast array of concerns and represented different student experiences. Based on these questions, we divided our town hall into five segments: reopening plans, teacher support, budget allocation plans, questions based on data gleaned from our Coping with COVID-19 student-to-student study, and a final call to action that centered around equity. We were able to encompass many of these questions within the five segments and created, as one community member said, “a good and helpful discussion.”
Coping with COVID-19
One of our segments focused on the data we gathered through our Coping with COVID-19 student-to-student study. In May, amidst school closures, the Student Voice Team conducted a survey on the impact COVID-19 had on students that gathered over 9,400 responses across Kentucky. Over the summer we have worked diligently with our adult research allies to analyze this data. In our town halls we asked board members and candidates to address several concerning points that were brought up through this study. Candidates and board members addressed the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on students of lower socioeconomic status, the negative postsecondary changes students are experiencing, and the mental health concerns brought on by this pandemic.
The town halls allowed us to directly ask school board members and candidates how they will handle the ways COVID-19 has impacted students in their district. It was a unique opportunity for us to amplify the voices of all students surveyed and push for an action by our school board to address these student experiences.
Town Hall Reflections
Overall, our town halls were a success. We received great insights from candidates and board members. Despite our setbacks in outreach, we were still able to get great attendance on our Zoom and on the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team Facebook page. This was one of the first time school board members and candidates interacted with the constituents they are serving/will/might serve. Our incredible student turnout and the questions that drew on student experiences prove that student voice was heard. Our large attendance and numerous views on Facebook show that voters were listening. Our meaningful conversations with the school board candidates and members leave us hopeful that they will strive to address the issues discussed. Feedback from our student audience lets us know that because of the town hall, our school board now feels like a pertinent and approachable subject.
Ana Despa is a sophomore at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington. This piece originally appeared on the Student Voice Forum Medium blog.