IW students have a seat at board table

Published 6:07 pm Tuesday, March 16, 2021

As student liaisons to the Isle of Wight County School Board, Leah Carroll and Neelie Harris represent the division’s largest core constituency — about 5,300 kindergarten through 12th-grade students who attend nine schools.

Carroll, a Windsor High School senior, and Harris, a Smithfield High junior, literally have a seat at the school board’s table to offer feedback and guidance as the five board members, who are elected by county voters, make decisions that affect thousands of students, families and the community.

In the pandemic era, they’ve helped to shape some major recent decisions.

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“It’s definitely been a lot more work than I thought it would be, because I never imagined when I started my term I would be giving feedback on whether or not we should be in school during a pandemic or not,” Carroll said. “It’s been a little challenging to stay on top of schoolwork and really to connect with all of the students and hear all of their opinions and make sure everyone’s voice is heard.”

Harris echoed that sentiment.

“I couldn’t have imagined how much work it was going to be,” she said. Along with taking multiple college-level classes, she said trying to connect with people has been a challenge since some students have gone months without being in classrooms together due to the pandemic. And despite the pandemic, both young women are active and engaged in activities and leadership roles in and out of school.

Isle of Wight’s student liaison roles are two-year terms. Students apply for the position and are interviewed by a panel which includes Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton. In the coming months, the division plans to choose a current Windsor High sophomore who will serve as that school’s liaison for a two-year term at the start of their junior year.

Carroll said the biggest question she’s fielding from students is how they expect the academic year to end.

“That’s definitely the biggest question. I have to answer it almost every day,” Carroll said. “I get the same question every day too,” Harris added during a video chat interview. “Are we returning? Are we coming back? … Everybody has a different opinion, and so it’s trying to put it all together. It’s like a puzzle.”

But the ongoing upheaval to normalcy has an upside — the independence of a hybrid learning schedule.

“Personally, I think I’d like to just stick to the two days in school, three days virtual,” Harris said. It’s kind of like a college schedule. At first I didn’t really like it. I thought it was just going to be terrible. I was like, ‘I don’t get to see my friends.’ But now I’ve actually come to enjoy it. I get to get all my work done early so I have time for field hockey practice or other extracurriculars. But I’m still learning the stuff that I need to learn, so I really enjoy this schedule. I think it fits well for us.”

“It does feel like we’re kind of in college,” Carroll added. “We only have to go to class a few days a week. And my teachers, especially, have really taken on the challenge and have handled the hybrid schedule really well where we can kind of do the bookwork at home then when we’re in school, we can do the hands-on engaging activities.”

In addition to influencing important decisions, “I never expected how much of an active role I’d have on the board during the meeting, when I came on,” Carroll added. “I knew that I was there to give the students voice. I didn’t really know what that looked like before coming on.”

Harris said she was surprised at how much financial and administrative work it takes to run a school system.

“I never realized how much of a business that a school district can be,” she said. “Seeing all the budgeting stuff that goes on when we’re in the meetings, it just blows your mind. As a student, you don’t really think, ‘How much money in grants is the school district getting from a certain company?’ I didn’t think about that but after seeing all these presentations that people have put together … it just blows my mind how much goes into making a school work.”

The student liaisons said they also plan to advocate for other issues. Carroll wants to focus on internet equity.

“I personally, for a long time, did not have reliable internet at my house, so that made it very challenging. I could drive to a parking lot, I could drive to a relative’s house — I had a relative that I trusted during the pandemic to go sit in their house and do school work,” Carroll said. “But I know a lot of people don’t have anyone or they don’t have transportation or their parents can’t provide transportation to somewhere where they can connect.”

Just providing a portable internet hotspot for students to use at home sometimes doesn’t solve the problem because, she pointed out, if there’s bad or no cell phone service at your house, the internet won’t work either.

“I’d definitely just like to pursue more avenues in general, even when there’s not a pandemic, for students who don’t have internet because I know I struggled even before the pandemic to complete online assignments outside of school.”

Harris said she’s also interested in advocating for students’ mental health.

“I’m comfortable talking to my guidance counselor about stuff like that,” she said. “I’ve known my guidance counselor for a while but some people don’t really know theirs.” Those students, she said, may not know where they can go for support or how to get it.

“Sometimes talking to the administration can be a little daunting because they control our school, so it can be a little scary trying to talk to them,” Harris said. She wants to make sure students know they can access “a safe outlet to share your feelings with a teacher and say, ‘This is what I’m struggling with, how should I go about fixing this?’ or ‘I’m having a lot of anxiety lately’ — just someone to help you with that stuff.”

As of April 1, one of the most important days — high school graduation — will be about 75 days away for Isle of Wight students. Windsor’s graduation is set for 7 p.m. on June 18 and Smithfield’s is set for 9 a.m. on June 19.

“We totally understand that it’s not going to be a normal graduation,” said Carroll. For now, the plan is to create an experience that is like the academic jacket ceremony, which was earlier in the year. “I’ve spoken with a lot of students who have all agreed that sounds better than anything else — better than nothing definitely. Once that time comes around, I do plan on fighting for at least something for us — just one final memory of high school.”

“At this point,” she continued, “we’ve kind of accepted we’re not going to have any months of our senior year [that are] normal, which is why what we’re mostly hoping above all is for a somewhat normal graduation, that’s safe of course — but somewhere where we can take pictures, hold our diploma and it’s just one last get together with all of our friends to say, ‘We made it — we made it through this crazy senior year.’”