From the classroom to the board room
Student members of the board of education share insight
Many high school students participate in student government and extracurricular activities to augment their transcripts, but only a select few exhibit the passion and characteristics necessary to serve on their respective county’s board of education and represent the student body.
Each Southern Maryland county has a student representative elected to its board of education. The student member of the board of education, also known as a “SMOB,” serves as the link between school leaders and students. Students must be a rising high school junior or senior to run for the position.
It runs in the family
In Charles County, Alton Pearson Benson, a rising senior at Westlake High School, is wrapping up his first term as SMOB after being elected in his first year of eligibility. Benson was born in Talbot County and moved to Charles County at a young age.
Benson said he participated in various leadership roles early in his adolescence. Starting as student council president at Dr. James Craik Elementary in fourth grade, he eventually served as the Charles County Public Schools middle school representative to the Charles County Association of Student Councils. Benson was
also the vice president and charity coordinator for the Maryland Association of Student Councils.
After learning about the student member of the board of education in sixth grade, he said he was immediately interested.
“I knew it was something I wanted to do when I got of age,” Benson said of becoming student member of the board. “Last year was the first year I could have the opportunity to do it, so I went for it and got elected.”
In previous years, the Charles County SMOB was elected by a committee composed of student government advisers, CCASC officers, high school liaisons to the board of education and the outgoing student member of the board of education.
Last year was the first year the student member of the Charles County Board of Education was elected by the CCASC. The committee selected three applicants to stand before the CCASC General Assembly for election, at which time Benson emerged victorious.
Benson took his sister Georgia’s spot as student member of the board this year, following her commencement from Westlake High School. This is the first time siblings have served as student board members in Charles County, school system spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson said after Benson was elected, according to previous reports.
As SMOB, Benson has had an opportunity to form more connections with the other board members, so they are more aware of ongoing student activities. He said board members have been present at every event hosted by Charles County’s student government association this school year.
School board members “are making a push to make sure all our schools in Charles County are going to these different [MASC] events and general assemblies,” Benson explained. “Probably one of the biggest things I’ve accomplished as SMOB is making the board aware of these events, so they can expand their support on them.”
Benson said he particularly enjoys serving as a liaison between the student body and the board of education for student issues.
“The board isn’t in school every day,” he said. “They rely on me to talk to different students from around the county and see what’s going on, so they’re more aware of what’s happening.”
“Students are the center of everything that we do, so it’s vital to give students opportunities to provide input as we make decisions that affect their education,” Superintendent Kimberly Hill said. “Student voice matters.”
Hill also expressed her appreciation having Benson as student board member, stating he brings a fresh perspective to is- sues the board is working on.
“He shares his opinions and questions in a thoughtful and respectful manner,” she said. “Students like Pearson make Charles County Public Schools a great place to learn.”
Serving as SMOB has allotted Benson the opportunity to learn from people who are older than him who can share wisdom they’ve gained from their experiences. This position has also resulted in many networking opportunities for Benson, which he said is assisting him for his future career aspirations.
Benson doesn’t know what college he wants to attend yet, but wants to study business with a focus in economics. He aspires to work for a large corporation after college, eventually starting his own sporting goods business or workout facility.
Along with playing on the variety lacrosse and football teams, Benson is also Westlake’s class of 2017 president. He is a member of the Key Club and the Future Business Leaders of America as well.
Benson said his biggest motivation and mentor is his mother, Chrystal Benson, principal of Westlake. He also credited his sister, his advisor and the rest of the board of education for being an assistance as he served as student member.
“He enjoys working with others and presents public speaking and effective
leadership workshops throughout the state of Maryland,” Chrystal Benson said of her son. “He is very good with encouraging others to take on leadership roles and become active at all levels: school, district and state.”
Benson is running for re-election as student board member. The election will be conducted at CCASC’s final General Assembly of the year, scheduled for May 6.
Raising the student voice
Calvert County’s SMOB is Alexya Brown, a senior at Patuxent High School, who is completing her second term as student board member. Brown is a native of Calvert.
Like Benson, Brown first became interested in student government at a young age, serving as president and vice president of the Student Government Association at Southern Middle School.
“I was always really interested in doing more in terms of leadership, going from being a delegate to actually being on stage and facilitating,” Brown said. “I also found a passion for speaking up for students who may not be aware that they have a voice.”
Brown has been involved with the Calvert Association of Student Councils since 2011 and has served in a variety of roles, including junior public relations coordinator, secretary, public relations coordinator, a member on the constitution revisions committee and as a student trainer for CASC and the Maryland Association of Student Councils. She is also a member of the National Honor Society and Patuxent High School’s theater group, the Harlequins.
Brown said her two terms as SMOB have been about informing unaware students of what kind of voice they have in the school system. She has worked to show students they can have a voice in who governs them and what kind of education they experience.
She has helped establish the student member board report, where she has the opportunity at the monthly school board meeting to tell the community and board about issues affecting students and various events held by school organizations.
Brown said her biggest achievement as student member on the board is the development of the student advisory council — 22 concerned Calvert students who serve various staff roles purposed to improve the educational experience in the county.
“The student advisory council is really there to make recommendations to myself, as SMOB, and to the superintendent [Daniel Curry],” Brown
said. “The recommendations that we make to the board [of education] are really focused on what students are actually interested in and what their concerns are.”
She added that this council has given students more visibility and gives the school board an additional tool they can use to obtain student opinions.
As Brown transitions out of the student board member position, she said she is hopeful the next SMOB becomes a person of the people and do things with the intention that a better path will be made for the students coming behind them. She said the SMOB must always build for the future.
She said she will miss having the platform to meet and build connections with various constituents in the community.
Brown said one of her mentors throughout her time serving as SMOB has been Scott Goldstein, advisor for CASC and teacher at Patuxent High. She said Goldstein has always been encouraging and assists her in finding resources.
“He is an absolute fantastic person and I thank him for a lot of the success that I’ve achieved,” she added.
Brown also said Curry has been very helpful as she served on the board. They both came to the board of education around the same time.
“He is such a progressive person,” Brown said of Curry. “Without him I really wouldn’t have gotten the student advisory council off the ground. He listens to ideas and he’s a person of innovation.”
In a recent letter of recommendation, Curry described Brown as a natural leader and said he fears she has spoiled him for what a student board member should be like.
“[She’s] one of those the other students look toward when someone needs to get the group organized and focused,” Curry said of Brown. “Alexya is a walking billboard for someone who embraces a diverse set of experiences — she sings, she dances, she leads, she writes, she trains others, she models best practices.”
Brown has not decided what college she would like to attend in the fall yet, but she is interested in majoring in public health policy. She wants to study the intersection between policies and health care delivery. Brown aspires to be a policy analyst for a hospital or work in the public sector of the government.
Serving on the board has also helped Brown in achieving her future career aspirations.
“Public speaking is such an important tool,” she said. “I realize people graduate from high school and college not having a lot of the leadership training we have here that’s been granted to me by being on the board of education. In general, I’ve been put in a position that obviously not a lot of students get to be put in each year. That itself has given me so many skills that I’m going to take with me, and I’m so gracious.”
Another skill Brown has improved from serving on the board of education and her other responsibilities is time management and finding balance. She said the people in her life are very supportive in helping her balance her social and academic life.
“It’s really easy, I think, to start feeling like you’re missing out when you have responsibilities that are so radically different from what your peers are doing, but I stay really future-focused and keep my goals in mind,” Brown explained. “That helps me to constantly prioritize and keep track of every minute that I’m spending.”
In her free time Brown spends time with her family, especially her younger siblings. She said she loves the arts, and constantly finds new albums, musicals or plays to enjoy with friends. Brown also spends a lot of time outside and takes pictures at various events for a local news publication.
“I guess a lot of my hobbies really just connect to my extracurriculars and my job, so it’s not like I have some really cool talent or practice outside of school and work,” she added.
Brown was presented the Woman of Tomorrow award last month for her continuous leadership and work in the community. The award was presented at the 14th annual Women of the World awards celebration, hosted by the Calvert County Commission for Women and League of Women Voters. She was also recognized by the Calvert County commissioners earlier this month for this achievement.
Fighting against drug abuse
Sarita Lee, a senior at Great Mills High School, is wrapping up her second term as student member of the board in St. Mary’s County. Lee was born in La Plata, but moved to St. Mary’s County when she was 2.
Lee uses her position as SMOB to address the public health issue of drug abuse.
“I first became interested in SMOB because I identified drug misuse as one of the most pressing issues for students at St. Mary’s County public schools,” Lee said. “I saw the role as SMOB as one that I could address that issue and have the most influence.”
Lee made observations in high school that drug abuse was a problem for students. She also said she follows national heroin and opioid abuse trends. She attributes part of this issue to St. Mary’s County’s proximity to Baltimore, which is considered the heroin capital of the United States.
As student board member, Lee started a youth drug prevention summit. She partnered with students from each St. Mary’s County high school and the county superintendent, Scott Smith, to change the culture surrounding drug abuse. Lee has noticed an increase in student awareness and involvement regarding drug abuse in St. Mary’s schools.
Great Mills High School Principal Jake Heibel complimented Lee for her dedication and said he thinks highly of her for her positive contributions to the school.
“She is one of our very top students whose self-motivation and discipline serves has a model for other students. I would say that she certainly leads by example, always being the first to step up and help,” Heibel said. “The greatest compliment I can give to her is that I know Great Mills High is a better place as a result of her time spent here.”
Lee said her favorite part about serving on the board is being able to connect students to community partners who can influence students’ lives.
“For example, in response to seeing how influential it was to have students run the youth drug prevention summit last year, my superintendent and I worked together to form the superintendent student advisory committee,” Lee said. “Now, that is a way to include student voices on any topic within our school system and in our community that effects students.”
As SMOB, Lee said she has been able to bring more student voices to the table on key community issues, as their voices are “influential and powerful.”
Lee said school board member Cathy Allen served as her mentor and helped her transition into the position.
“She would explain the items on the agenda to me,” Lee said.
Lee also referred to her superintendent, Smith, as a great assistance while serving on the board.
“He always valued my opinion in addressing these issues that affected students,” Lee said of Smith. “He was the one I initially met with to discuss my views on what we should do to address substance misuse in St. Mary’s County.”
Another individual who greatly influenced Lee was Mike Wyant, director of safety and security.
Lee said she will miss working with all of the students who have volunteered or dedicated their time to working with her and other community partners to address the issue of drug use.
“My advice for the next SMOB is the same advice that I received from the SMOB that came before me,” Lee said. “Understand all aspects of the system before critiquing it.”
Lee does not know what college she will attend yet, but is interested in studying biochemistry or molecular biology. She has taken multiple Advanced Placement classes to prepare her for this field.
“I know I want to go into the field of medicine because I want to be a leader in my community on health issues,” she explained. “SMOB has influenced that because over the last couple years I’ve been working on changing the culture around drug misuse, which is a community health issue.”
Lee added that serving as student board member has shown her the importance of staying involved in the community. She also realized she has a passion for community involvement.
“Because of this experience as SMOB, I will always be involved in my community, no matter where my career takes me,” she said.
Along with serving on the board of education, Lee is also a member of the National Honor Society and participated on the Great Mills cross-country team and varsity girls lacrosse team. Lee has also volunteered at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital and other places in the community.
“Balance is something that I’ve learned to embrace over high school and become much better at,” Lee said. “I’ve learned to value my personal hobbies as well as my professional pursuits.”
Lee said one of her favorite hobbies is road cycling, stating it helps her clear her mind.
“When I’m out on these long bike rides, I often take that time to be introspective,” Lee explained. “Often I’ll key into solutions that I would not have while I’m out on these bike rides, but I just let myself think and process everything.”
Lee said these personal hobbies are important for personal development and a key part of balance.
Alexya Brown, a graduating senior at Patuxent High School, is the current student member of the Calvert County Board of Education. She was recognized last month with the Woman of Tomorrow award at the 14th annual Women of the World awards celebration.
Alton Pearson Benson, a rising senior at Westlake High School, is the student member of the Charles County Board of Education. He is seeking re-election May 6.
Alexya Brown, a graduating senior at Patuxent High School, is the current student member of the Calvert County Board of Education.