Mar 13, 2024 - News

Some on Miami-Dade School Board bristle at student engagement push

Illustration of a fist holding a pencil.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

An effort to boost student engagement in Miami-Dade County School Board meetings is facing pushback from some board members who say the proposal is unnecessary and politically motivated.

Why it matters: The measure, proposed by board member Lucia Báez-Geller, was conceived by district students who say engagement had been lacking.

  • "The board doesn't promote civic engagement as much as it should," said Artemis Cruz, a student at José Martí MAST 6–12 Academy. "It's a common-sense solution."
  • The board's response shows many members are more interested in "controlling and policing" students, said Cameron Driggers, executive director of Youth Action Fund, which helped organize the campaign in support of the item.

The big picture: The conflict underscores political divisions within the board, particularly on the subject of whom it is meant to serve.

  • Board member Danny Espino, whom Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed, said at the March 6 committee meeting that he didn't like the message the measure would send to constituents who've told him to focus less on social issues and more on academics.
  • Luisa Santos countered that students are constituents, too.

The fine print: The measure is a feasibility study, meaning the board's approval would direct staff to contemplate ways the district could boost student engagement, including options outside of those included in the proposal.

  • The board often approves feasibility efforts, as doing so has no immediate impact on district policies.
  • The original proposal set out to make board meetings more accessible to students by increasing their input on agendas, improving virtual options and boosting awareness about policy proposals.

Friction point: The main issue for some was a suggestion to offer excused absences or provide community service hours for students attending the meetings.

  • Board member Mary Blanco said she feared the board would be promoting absences. She also wanted students to understand community service as "helping others in need, not voicing an opinion."
  • Roberto Alonso argued the board has "bigger fish to fry" than engagement, noting the district's low proficiency rates for English and math: 52% and 56%, respectively, he said.

The intrigue: Board member Monica Colucci and others objected to what she described as students being used "to promote particular [political] agendas."

  • Colucci claimed she had received 125 emails about the measure, many originating from "one particular organization in Washington, D.C." She did not say which organization, nor did she respond to Axios' requests to clarify.
  • "We cannot politicize our kids," Alonso said at the meeting last week. "We are not in the game to prepare our kids to be activists."

What they're saying: Board members who criticized the measure pointed to existing high school governments where students can discuss issues.

  • But according to Báez-Geller, less than 50% of high schools participated in the monthly student government association meetings last school year. Some high schools never participated, she said.

Bottom line: The board is expected to discuss a watered-down version of the measure Tuesday at its monthly meeting. Notably, the new proposal does not include the idea of offering excused absences and community service hours.

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