Last spring, Portland Public Schools, whose board of trustees have included student representatives for several years, passed a groundbreaking law climate policy which was co-authored by the student representative. Kat Davis, Oregon District Advisor for Climate Justice, a newly created position, said the students have been “so important” to the district’s role as a climate pioneer. She said, “We take student engagement very seriously.”
District high school students elect one of their own to a permanent seat. Students also sit on committees, including the Climate Crisis Response Committee. The district’s new climate policy prohibits the installation of gas-fired equipment in all new buildings and requires that all fossil-fuel infrastructure be phased out of existing buildings by 2050. The policy also mandates climate education and requires schools to address climate-related impacts on health, safety and well-being. “We are all very aware that it is not an option NOT to do something about climate change,” said Byronie McMahon, the high school student who currently sits on the council. “We have a responsibility.
District students, born in the 21st century, have not known a world without heat waves and wildfire smoke; their moral clarity and fierce urgency “drive us to be better,” Davis said. “Their role is never to be fully satisfied.
The desire to represent students has increased – Chalkbeat reported earlier this year than 14 percent of the nation’s largest school districts now have a student serving on their boards in some capacity. But it is more common for them to play an “advisory” role, without the right to vote.
Such was the case for Solyana Mesfin, another student leader and climate advocate. She was nominated by Governor Andy Beshear to be the first student representative on the Kentucky State Board of Education from 2020-22.”Having a voice at the table is very important – but also a voting voice,” she said. “Students are the primary consumers of the education system. There is no one more affected.
Now a freshman at the University of Louisville, Mesfin is also advocating for the adoption of electric school buses as co-chair of an advisory board for the World Resources Institute.
In Boise, Rajbhandari said his journey to the school board began in earth science in seventh grade, when he was “lucky” to have a teacher who went above and beyond state standards for teach about climate change. “I think we talked about polar bears and rainforests and the effects of climate change on places like Miami. But it’s kind of weird because we haven’t really talked about how climate change is causing the [wildfire] the smog that cancels our cross country practice every year for two weeks in September or causes an increase in asthma in our community or causes people to lose their homes, literally, a few miles from our school.
After a few years of personal struggle climate anxiety with individual actions, such as buying fewer new clothes, Rajbhandari found and joined militant groups Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion. And his experience with these groups, in turn, empowered him to run for elected office. Since joining the school board last fall, he’s contracted with a consulting firm to perform a carbon audit and find “low-hanging fruits,” easy fixes, like improving the insulating buildings and replacing regular lights with LEDs, changes which Rajbhandari said will quickly pay for themselves. Then he said, “We can install solar panels in our schools and make money for the school system through the state’s first power purchase agreement. [and ultimately] exceed our city’s climate goals and save millions of dollars in the process. »
It’s much easier to think big like this when you’re sitting on the podium as a voting board member, rather than petitioning the board. “The difference is you have a vote,” said Markus Ceniceros, a high school student who was recently elected to the Littleton Elementary School District Board of Trustees, west of Phoenix, Arizona. Ceniceros is a champion for LGBTQ rights and mental health as well as clean energy and electric school buses. “When you’re just a student, people can tell you, well, maybe.”