The Elk River School Board has a special "in" with students in the district.
For years, the district has tapped a group of seniors to act as liaisons between their student bodies and the board. This year, the students are going beyond the traditional reports on school service projects, activities, sports and fundraisers, and delivering feedback to the board on important topics such as how their classmates are receiving new federal school lunch standards, the need for new school auditoriums and, most recently, online learning.
"This is the first time we've really asked their opinions on relevant information," said School Board Chairwoman Jolene Jorgensen. "Their role really has been to update us, but I was wanting that role to be a little bit more. They're leaders of their schools, but all the decisions we make at the school board really affect kids, though they may not affect them directly."
Each of the district's four high schools selects a representative; this year, Zimmerman High School has two.
Two or three students are present at each biweekly school board meeting. Though they sit on the dais with the elected members, they do not vote. But they are expected to participate in some board discussions.
At last Monday's meeting, Erik Bremer from Rogers High School and Sylvia Michels and Hunter Smith from Zimmerman weighed in on the possibility that the district could offer required and elective classes as online-only options. They engaged in a lively give-and-take amongst themselves and with board members, noting that some classes would lend themselves to online learning, such as social studies. Others, such as advanced biology, might not. They also wondered aloud whether students who would opt for class in their PJs might not be better served in class.
Aaron Schwab, a senior at Elk River High School, said he already had attended a few school board meetings before he was selected to represent his school.
"It's interesting to see how they are run," he said. "It's good to be informed. I learn a lot when I'm there."
The official role has raised the bar, however.
"They're definitely listening," he said of the adults on the board. "They ask a lot of questions, so it's kind of scary when you're up there. You have to be well-informed and know a lot about what the public opinion is because it is publicized what you say."
Schwab said he publicizes the issues of the day using Facebook. The question about school lunches attracted more than 40 comments. Students now seek him out to offer feedback, and he keeps track of them via a notes application on his iPhone.
Bremer said service as a school board liaison is part of his traditional duties as student council vice president at Rogers. He said serving as a liaison has taught him how one person can make a difference.
"It all goes back to that sense of efficacy, where students really feel like bringing something to me can actually make a difference. It's not falling on deaf ears. There's a way to tell the higher-ups what's going on."
Sometimes that's not comfortable, Schwab said.
"It is kind of scary because when you're up there, if you tell them an opinion that's not necessarily positive you don't always know how they'll take that," he said. "I try to make it sound not quite as harsh, but I keep it real. I tell them how the students feel, and what they want."
The experience has been a growth opportunity for students in the past, Jorgensen said.
"It is amazing," she said. "They may come into that first September meeting tripping over themselves, but by that last meeting, it's like, 'Wow, you have grown up during the year, and your speaking skills have improved.' They're so much more confident and poised even in that nine months."
That's a benefit that isn't lost on Bremer and Schwab.
"It's great to develop my public speaking skills," Schwab said. "Being in front of a camera, an audience, speaking to your superiors, that's all great experience for whatever career I go into. But I think it all goes back to that sense of making a difference and being a leader in the school. That's great experience, being a leader in any setting, to have that responsibility where you're saying to the other kids in your school, 'I'm representing you.' I think that's a really cool thing."
Maria Elena Baca 612-673-4409