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Northern Illinois students bring their voice to school boards

DeKalb School District
Jenna Zimmerman lists off student concerns to her fellow school board members at DeKalb School Board meeting in early 2024.

Jenna Zimmerman lists off student concerns to her fellow school board members.

“One other thing was that bathroom soaps and paper towels are not refilled often,” she said. “Some others that were brought up were an unbalanced grading system.”

She’s a student at DeKalb High School -- heading into her senior year next year -- and also the district’s second-ever student school board member.

She’s the link between the elected board and nearly 7,000 students from preschool to high school. If you think about it, she represents more people than a lot of mayors.

Those concerns she brought to the board — like bathroom access, unfair dress codes, and a test-heavy grading system — are issues you could hear at a lot of schools. But they don’t always get taken seriously enough to make it all the way to the school board. That’s Jenna’s job.

“There's so many students who want to make change," said Zimmerman, "and I just feel like they don't know where to start.”

In some ways, she’s the voice of DeKalb students. But it’s almost impossible to hear from everyone, and speak on behalf of everyone, in such a large and diverse district.

One way she’s trying to hear students who want change is through “speak outs” where they invite students from every school to talk about challenges they’re facing. It’s how she got the responses she presented. She also created a “mini” board made up of fellow students. She asked for teacher recommendations, put it in the school announcements, and started an Instagram page to reach out.

“I chose a specific amount of seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen," Zimmerman said, "just to make it around an equal amount of people who are actively coming to mini board meetings.”

She had around 20 students last year and hopes to get to 40 next year for a more representative sample. They’ll also have to keep building trust and raising awareness so students know they can come to their student representatives with concerns.

DeKalb is not the only school district with student board members. At Rockford Public Schools, they have a student advisory council of about a dozen students from all of the district’s high schools.

Jessica Garcia just graduated from Auburn High School. She was on the council the past two years. Her school has academies, and the “gifted” academy is always the one most represented on the board. But, she thought, what about everyone else? What about the students who aren’t in every club or every sport?

“I felt like it was really important to elevate student experience that wasn’t 'high achieving' students,” she said. “There are other students who aren't like that, and they deserve to have their voices represented as well.”

And to that point -- what about younger students? Student board members are almost always high schoolers. Elementary and middle schoolers often don’t have their voices heard or taken seriously.

Garcia says one way they try to hear from those kids is through a 5th-grade mentorship program. They also applied for a grant to buy books for elementary school students.

“How can we get younger students kind of involved?" said Garcia. "What's an issue that a lot of children are facing right now? That's reading, reading scores are insanely low.”

Back in DeKalb, Zimmerman says she visited both middle schools last year to talk with students and hopes to invite middle and elementary schoolers to mini board meetings next year.

The Aurora West School District has had student board representatives for almost 20 years.

Ellie Rogowski is a student board member. She says their district has built some infrastructure that helps students and staff know who their student representatives are. For example, civics classes do an assignment where they research and write down all of their representatives, starting with Congress.

“At the bottom of that chart," said Rogowski, "they had to go and research and find out who their student board representatives are.”

Jenna Zimmerman in DeKalb says they brought a lot of important issues to the board this past year, like bringing in new AP classes and bringing back their mandatory study hall. Those discussions will continue into next year, but they did have a few big wins. They helped lead the charge for a new lunch program.

“I think that led to the change of the school program," she said, "because through the mini board, we were also able to send a few students out to different schools to go taste the different programs that they were going to use next year."

In her last board meeting as a member in Rockford, Jessica Garcia talked about teen dating violence, and a new Illinois law that corrects some language about students having the right to a safe learning environment.

“I think," she said, "being able to hear that firsthand testimony is really important to bringing about some change."

Conversations like that can be powerful. If schools say they want to hear honest student voices, students say schools have to be prepared to listen to things that might be hard to hear — but do keep giving them the space to share.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.