For Johnson, a SMOB well done

April 6, 2006, midnight | By Armin Rosen | 17 years, 11 months ago

A look back on Sebastian Johnson's year on the Board of Education

As Student Member of the Board of Education (BOE), senior Sebastian Johnson finds himself wedged between his constituency and reality, but there's no place he'd rather be. "Students don't always realize the political realities of what they want to advocate for," Johnson explains, citing the school system's new Grading and Reporting Policy as an instance in which "political realities" conflict with even his own initial opinions on the issue.

But he believes that this gap between the nature of the decisions made by the BOE and the needs and input of the over 150,000 students these decisions impact makes the Student Member of the Board (SMOB) an indispensable position.

It is a position that offers observers few quantifiable or even easily qualifiable measures of success or failure. Because the job is, in many ways, an attempt to balance student concerns with the sometimes unpleasant realities of administering a large and complicated school system, the Student Member's position is based more on dialogue and discussion than any solid or dramatic gains for students. BOE President Charles Haughey explains that it would be wrong to characterize a Student Member as "using ABC arguments and getting XYZ effects," instead saying that Johnson had "impact on the thinking of Board members."

To that end, Johnson has tried to gain the trust and respect of his colleagues on the BOE while listening to the concerns of the students affected by the Board's policies. He has made it a point to visit as many public and private schools in Montgomery County as possible and has held the straightforward philosophy of arguing for what is in "the best interests of the students of this county."

Although it would seem difficult to gauge his influence on the BOE's members, he has facilitated the dialogue needed to make student concerns relevant to the Board's decision-making process — which is about the best a Student Member can hope for.

However, the challenges of acting as both the Board's representative to the students and the students' representative to the Board has been compounded by many of the unique, long-standing issues facing MCPS. Johnson says that issues of "equity in education" have dominated his time on the Board, as fair grading practices, eligibility requirements and the elimination of the achievement gap have served as flashpoints for larger discussions on educational fairness in Montgomery County.

Similarly, Haughey says that many of MCPS's most pressing concerns, such as implementing the new grading policy, constructing new schools upcounty and gradually overhauling middle-school curricula, will long outlast Johnson's time in office.

Which makes Johnson's balancing act all the more remarkable. In a time when the issues facing the school system are complicated and long-term, he has made a concerted effort to make his office more accessible and more representative — he has, for instance, began coordinating efforts with Student Members of the Board in other counties and has placed a renewed emphasis on lobbying and communicating at the state and federal level.

As a Student Member of the Board, he will leave little in the way of a permanent legacy, at least as far as policy goes. But future SMOBs will also have to deal with the consequences of the new grading policy, the development of a new upcounty magnet and the challenges of managing the new system of high-school consortia, among other issues.

With this in mind, Johnson's greatest impact will likely be on the position of SMOB itself; as his successors have been given an example of a less isolated and more accessible Student Member, whom both students and adults can trust as a responsive advocate for a very important constituency.

Armin Rosen. Armin is a Seeeeenyor in the Communication Arts Program. "I am a journalist and, under the modern journalist's code of Olympian objectivity (and total purity of motive), I am absolved of responsibility. We journalists don't have to step on roaches. All we have to do … More »

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