No one interrupted an opponent, made fun of the media or called anyone a loser.
Instead, at a forum held Wednesday afternoon at the Ives main branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, seven candidates respectfully fielded questions and made their case for why they should be the next student representative on the city’s new hybrid Board of Education (BOE).
One candidate pointed to his experience as a member of his high school’s student council and the basketball team as markers of his ability to work with a team. Another candidate pointed to her roots as a Latina as a quality needed to not only reach, but be a voice for underrepresented Spanish- speaking students.
The student candidates are looking to fill the vacancy that will be created when one of the two current student members of the Board of Education, Sound School senior Kimberly Sullivan, graduates at the end of this school year.
A 2013 revision of the city charter created two two non-voting student positions on the BOE as of this January. All the students running for Sullivan’s soon-to-be vacant position are high schools sophomores who will be juniors in the fall.
Student elections will take place at all New Haven public high schools on April 7 and 8. All New Haven public high school students are eligible to vote. For more information visit New Haven Public Schools or search #NHPSStudentvoice on social media platforms.
Sullivan reminded the student-candidates Wednesday afternoon that student members of the BOE not only get their individual voices heard. But they along with “elder statesman” Hillhouse rising senior Coral Ortiz, who has one more year left in her term as a student representative, would be the voice of all the district’s 21,000 students.
“Through all of this, don’t lose sight of what the role really is, and don’t take it for granted, because for a long time it didn’t even exist,” Sullivan said. “We have to make it as meaningful as possible because at the end of the day, at the beginning of the year there were 21,173 students, and they are depending on you to be their voice and we have the adults to do it, but they’re not sitting at a desk every day like we are.”
Ortiz gave the student-candidates two pieces of advice as they take the next two weeks to campaign: Share your opinion and be open-minded.
“When you’re running and campaigning, don’t be afraid to talk to people about how you feel,” she said. “Go all out. Don’t be afraid to really express your opinions. Tell them how you feel. Be open minded. Don’t be afraid to ask people for help. I think that is one of biggest things I learned.
“[Remember] this position isn’t just about what you think. It’s not just about the people the people you know. It’s about everyone.”
At Wednesday’s forum, students fielded questions from the school district’s Suzanne Lyons, who has been involved with the student elections process since it was formalized; and Earle Lobo of the city’s youth department. Lyons pointed out that the seven candidates had met the first test already: Each convinced 100 of their fellow students to sign a petition for their candidacy. The candidates had to get 50 signatures from students at their school and 50 from students at other schools. Lyons said the candidates actually amassed 875 signatures, 700 of which were unique signatures.
Jacob Spell of Hyde Leadership School pointed to his experience as a good marker of why he should be the next student representative.
“I’m a member of the student council at Hyde, so I have experience representing other students’ opinions,” he said when asked about his leadership qualities. “I do well in school, and I think I’ll be able to draw from many areas of knowledge to articulate my opinion. And I’m also a member of the Hyde basketball team, so I know how to work as a member of a team and work with others.”
Alondria Martinez-Lopez from High School in the Community pointed to her roots as part of the role that her voice would play should she be elected.
“I should continue speaking up for others especially since I’m Hispanic,” she said. “I’m Mexican-American and I know there are many students who don’t know English yet and are struggling to learn English and I could be that voice to help them.”
When asked how he would reach those 21,000-plus students from pre-K to 12th grade and even alternative schools, candidate Joseph Lampo of Wilbur Cross said on Wednesdays he only attends school for half a day and would use the other half to visit his fellow students.
“I believe the first step to being able to have the people who don’t have a voice—to help them, [we have] to get to them and let them know that their voice actually matters,” he said. “On Wednesdays, I get out of school early and I would like to go around to the schools at that time because I have a solid hour and a half in which I can travel and actually get to know the people.”
Tyron Houston of High School in the Community said that diversity is the school district’s greatest asset, and he was not just talking about the different races and ethnicities of the student body. He pointed out that students from the suburbs have chosen to seek out educational opportunities in New Haven.
“I think that’s a great thing,” he said. “Our reputation must be good enough for other towns and things of that nature. Our school system must be not better than theirs, but it has to have something that has actually perked their interest to want to come to New Haven Schools.”
Career High student Yeimy Morales said that if she is elected she would address the problems she has heard from her peers who have already graduated.
“Some of my college friends said their high school and middle school education wasn’t enough for them to be in college,” she said. “I think that is a major problem we’re facing. Also, many students [feel] there are a lack of resources at school whether it’s computers or books, and I would really focus on that.”
“From the beginning of my term to the end of my term I believe that I will be more mature,” Hyde student Dwayne Carson said said. “By the end of my term, I hope to be able to say that I’ve helped and that I made sure that everyone had a voice.”
Melady Morocho of High School in the Community, who was in the minority of students who had not created a social media presence for her campaign, said that she is a shy person. She said she hopes that if she were elected, by the end of her term that would change.
“With this opportunity I’m hoping it will help me grow and get out of my box,” she said. “At the end of my term hopefully I will be not too shy, but not too confident. But I would say for the kids, [I hope] to make them happy and enable them to be happy with what they’re doing and when they graduate.”
Mayor Toni Harp, who serves as BOE president, told the candidates that, win or lose, they all are taking their first steps in the political and governing process. “So many leaders in our community started out on the board of education,” she said. She pointed out that she and the rest of the BOE adults were educated generations ago, when the handheld technology that students use today was the figment of someone’s imagination.
“We were prepared for a world, frankly today doesn’t exist,” Harp said. “The school system is very different than the school system that we were in, so it’s very important to us — those of us educated in a different time, for a different world — to hear from you. Your voice is very, very important to us.
“I’m not going to tell you that there won’t be times that you will feel like the adults in the room are trying to diminish your voice, but you’ve got to be empowered to know that we absolutely need it and depend upon it if we are going to make good decisions for you and for the future of New Haven public schools,” Harp added.