The Youth Advocacy Council hosted a candidate forum Tuesday night for those hoping to serve on the school boards of the Colonial, Brandywine, and Appoquinimink school districts.
Supported by DelawareCAN, an education advocacy organization, members of a year-long group held the first-ever forum run solely by students in the First State at the Community Education Building in Wilmington.
Deborah Zarek and Jeanette Bailey, both running for Brandywine School District "F" were part of the panel as well as Rosemary Wolfe and Christopher Piecuch--both running for the Colonial School District "D" and Tanya Kerns, who is running for District "G."
Ursuline Academy junior Molly Clark ran the social media campaign for the event as well as served as the co-moderator. She helped sum up the last 11 months of work that went into putting on the program.
"So we're an organization that is made up of all high school students across Delaware and we've got [representation from] private, public, charter, vocational schools and even some who are home-schooled," said Clark. "Our organization is sponsored by DelawareCAN, the Campaign for Achievement Now, part of a larger movement with 50Can, it's basically them trying to give their knowledge to us, the people really being affected. In these school districts and in the schools, we are the students so we should have a say. So this program has really prepared me to have control over what is happening in our schools and I think that this program has prepared me to think and go in deeper into what's happening. You see news stories about teachers striking, but you're not exactly sure why they are striking. This program prepares me to know where to look for that information as well as advocate for changes that I might now have known before."
She said that the monthly meetings and topics in discussion brought the group to the idea to hold their own forum.
"Honestly, we came up with the idea because nobody talks about school board elections and our whole council has talked about education reform," she added. "What better way to find out what's going on in our schools than by hosting this and letting people know what's going on in our schools?"
Clark's classmate Whitney Grinnage-Cassidy helped with communications and outreach and also served as a co-moderator for the event.
She said planning an event like this took a lot of time and effort, but it worked out as well.
"Even before we got here, there was a lot of planning and behind-the-scenes work that you might not see from the audience's perspective," said Grinnage-Cassidy. "Molly and I had to communicate, and once we got here, it was just a matter of executing. We wanted it planned out--who was going to call on who and ask what questions--and we wanted to make it smooth so that we got to ask all of the questions, but we also wanted to have a chance to all the candidates to answer within the time-frame."
The moderators showed knowledge and maturity with carefully cultivated questions that hit on topics from policies to budgets, equity, legal status, discipline, and legislation within the school districts and how those would be affected in the districts from varying levels.
Clark noted that the candidates may have been surprised by or proud of the question selection and unannounced follow-ups that were backed by research the council had been studying up on since they started meeting in July of 2018.
"As students, we may not be taken seriously all the time. We all knew it was important to come with that extra knowledge so that we were taken seriously, and I don't think they were expecting some of those questions, besides the initial questions that we sent out," Clark said. "But definitely not the follow-up questions; we didn't send them those, so if they didn't answer them [as completely] as we wanted them to answer or if they didn't really answer the question, we tried to push back on them and use those kinds of things to make sure that everyone knew [that] we knew what we were talking about."
Bridget Schutt has spent the year being home-schooled, but was also heavily involved with the council and planning the unique forum.
"We recognized that because we were hosting a forum as the first student-run candidate forum ever in the state of Delaware, we really wanted to hammer these topics and to just get our points out," said Schutt. "We wanted to ask multiple questions that other high schoolers hadn't been able to ask at other forums, before."
She noted that along with the planned questions and follow-ups, the floor was opened to the public to close out the evening, which added even more topics to the wide range of concerns within the districts.
"It allowed the audience to ask questions as well as let them know that high-schoolers have much more knowledge and many more concerns than the fact that they're just sitting in school every day," she added. "They have concerns, questions and things that they want to change."
Questions that were fielded from the audience included concerns for LGBTQ rights, sex education, and inquiries as to what the candidates would do on the board, if elected.
Those additional queries were a large takeaway for some of the council.
"I think the information about sexual education classes and transgender students was great. I didn't think of those when I was up here moderating. I started thinking to myself, 'If I wasn't up here and I was in the audience, what would I be asking right now?' Neither of those questions came to mind, but as soon as I heard them i thought those were great questions to ask," said Grinnage-Cassidy. "I think in these kinds of forums--not to bring down the importance of those questions--but we were focused on funding, teachers and more 'hard questions,' so to say. For large groups of people, those questions are very significant and being able to account for transgender students, other students in the LGBTQ community and everyone else, they would really appreciate that. It brought another element to the forum that we may not have covered if it was just Molly and I asking the questions."
The school board elections will be held on May 14, 2019 and the only requirements to vote are living in a district, having a valid form of government identification, and being at least 18 years of age.