Angel Pilkey was in for a surprise when he started his term as a student representative on the Albemarle County School Board.
“It was very eye-opening to see how complex and how difficult and always changing a decision this big can be with new information,” said Pilkey, one of four students who are serving as the first student representatives to the board this school year.
During his three-month term, Pilkey watched and weighed in as board members voted to open up in-person classes to more students, allowed athletics to resume when classes were all-virtual and worked through the proposed funding request for fiscal year 2022.
Pilkey wrapped up his term earlier this month. Other student representatives also had the chance to play a role in discussions about school resource officers and key reopening decisions, questioning panelists and informing the board members. Overall, the first year for student representatives has been busy as they sat in on lengthy virtual meetings.
“All of them that sat on the board really had some good ideas, and they provided great input,” board chairman Graham Paige said. “They really lived up to our expectations. It was really a good plan to bring a student rep on board.”
Laila Barnes, a senior at Albemarle High School senior, will serve as the next student representative and the last of the first group.
Paige said that student representatives helped board members make decisions about reopening the schools by giving their opinions on whether to go back.
“That was really a good thing to have a student rep at that time to talk to directly and receive direct input on how would be probably the best way to proceed,” he said.
The board voted early in 2020 to add a non-voting student representative. The selected students serve for three-month terms starting in July.
The board has discussed adding a student representative off and on over the years but finally committed after then-board chairman Jonno Alcaro raised the idea in October 2019. The goal was to establish a direct link between the student body and the board and students had a voice in decisions made at meetings.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Alcaro said. “ … The young men and women have done an incredible job.”
Alcaro said the students brought a different perspective to the board than those that board members usually get.
“We normally don’t have students that give public comments,” Alcaro said.
Looking ahead to future groups of representatives, Alcaro said he wanted to encourage the students to come with a way to reach out to fellow students at the different high and middle schools.
Pilkey said representing all the students was a challenge. He met with clubs at different high schools to hear about their concerns, their priorities and what they wanted him to do. He also made an Instagram account as a way to share messages with more students and hopes to pass it down to other representatives.
“We really want to have students understand that we value what they have to say,” Alcaro said.
Students don’t participate in closed sessions but do receive all other board materials, except items related to individual students or personnel issues.
‘Opportunity of a lifetime’
Before applying, Pilkey had taken an interest in the School Board, attending many meetings over the years because student voices and being engaged in the community have always been important to him.
“It’s my community; I want it to be the best possible,” he said. “When everyone’s informed and everyone has access and is doing well, we’ll all benefit from that.”
As a student representative, Pilkey said he learned the work that goes into presentations and budget proposals.
“I mean, I was aware that it took a lot but I didn’t realize just how extensive and hard they worked,” he said.
High school students had the chance to start in-person classes earlier this month, and Pilkey is going into the building Tuesdays and Thursdays.
He had previously come to terms with the fact that he might not have a chance to go back during his senior year.
“I basically talked to myself, saying, ‘senior year is kind of basically over. You won’t get much of a send off if it’ll be online,’” he said. “So I came to terms with that, so it was nice being back in the building for the last year.”
So far, he says he has enjoyed being back and feels like the instruction is better and he can get to know his teachers better. In board meetings, he’s often talked about his teachers and his appreciation for their hard work.
“I think it’s really important to have a personal connection with your teacher,” he said. “I mean, they’re absolutely amazing and they worked so hard this year, so that was definitely my favorite part, just actually getting to know my teachers and talk to them, not just through a computer screen but like in person.”
Some of the complaints he’s heard from peers include that there’s not enough time to socialize during the day and in between classes.
“… But that’s how the system is set up,” he said.
At the end of each student’s term this school year, board members have recognized them at meetings, reading a letter about their service. Other representatives this year were Melani Burkhart and Will Trout, students at Monticello High School, as well as Elijah Witt, a junior Western Albemarle High School.
Witt was one of the alternates who would sit in on a meeting if the other student representative couldn’t make it. Since July, the primary representatives haven’t missed a meeting.
Paige said at the board’s Sept. 24 meeting that Burkhart, the first student to serve in the role, set a high standard for future representatives.
“I’ve really enjoyed being part of the process, especially with school openings,” Burkhart told board members at that meeting. “I’ve enjoyed using my role to bring light to other students’ opinions, especially during such a crucial time with virtual learning and virtual school.”
Paige said Burkhart is continuing to work with the division to come up with a way to contact more students and get the board more data on students’ opinions.
In December, board member Kate Acuff said that Trout had the distinction of participating in some of the longest school board meetings of the year.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Trout told the board. “It’s certainly been highly educational and really gave me tremendous perspective as to what goes on in the decisions that are made for me and for my peers, so it’s been a great honor.”
The first step in becoming a student representative is to fill out an application and detail their accomplishments, extracurriculars, awards, volunteer involvement along with any honors or Advancement Placement courses taken.
The high school principals nominate students and then schools Superintendent Matt Haas narrows the list to about eight students and then provides those names to the School Board. The board chair and vice chair conduct the interviews and make the final decision.
Per board policy, the chair of the School Board and the School Board clerk mentor the student representatives.
“Totally do it,” is Pilkey’s advice to students weighing whether to apply. “It’s your chance to make a big change, and bring a stronger voice to not only you, but members of your school. So, totally do it. It might seem intimidating, but overall, everyone’s really friendly and very helpful if you have any questions. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Pilkey is working with Alcaro and board member Judy Le to review the application for the position and make tweaks to ensure it’s accessible as possible for students.
“We want this to be something that all students can access,” Alcaro said, adding that one change they could propose would be to cut out any mention of AP courses.
Paige echoed that and said they don’t want the application to deter students from applying.
“We want to make sure that we get a good representation of all of the students in the county,” he said.
Any changes proposed by the team would go into effect for a future class of student representatives. Paige and vice chairwoman Katrina Callsen are already reviewing applications for the next group and are planning to make an announcement next month on who will join the board.
Paige said he would encourage future representatives to weigh in whenever they have information or an opinion that they think would be good for the board to hear.
“We still want to make sure that we encourage them to speak up and to let us know what their thoughts are,” he said. “So far, that’s been happening, and we want to make sure that our new crop of reps will continue that tradition.”