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Minneapolis school board rep gives voice to 35,000 disenfranchised students

Janaan Ahmed, who served on the Minneapolis school board in 2019, says it's hard to fight for students' interests without a vote.

Janaan Ahmed, who served on the Minneapolis school board in 2019, says it's hard to fight for students' interests without a vote. Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Pandemic aside, the Minneapolis school board has made some big decisions this year.

In May, it approved a major district makeover that would redistribute magnet programs geographically and concentrate vocational and technology courses in four designated high schools. The following month, it terminated Minneapolis Public Schools’ decades-long contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, which had provided campus security in the form of school resource officers (SROs).  

In both controversial decisions, the board’s single student representative, Washburn senior Nathaniel Genene, had to speak for the myriad viewpoints of the district’s 35,000 students. At times, that meant saying “no” to students from other schools, or having to explain how their concerns got overlooked.
Ahead of the vote on police in schools, for example, North High students asked for the choice of keeping their beloved SRO, Charles Adams III, who was also the football coach. Genene considered their plea, but ultimately concluded that ending the district’s contract with the MPD in the wake of George Floyd’s death wasn’t a comment on any one officer, but the culture of the agency as a whole.

When it came to the district redesign, however, Genene wishes he’d gotten more student input. Under the district’s new plan, Patrick Henry – another North Side high school – will lose its engineering program, threatening the viability of its famous robotics team. But because the district scheduled its students-only listening session on a night the Henry robotics team was competing out of town, Genene didn’t talk to any robotics students until after the vote.

“Looking back, there are so many things I wish I could change and do better because there have been so many important issues. You’ll probably hear this a lot – the position can get tokenizing at times,” he says. “I usually feel that my opinions and thoughts are heard, but sometimes you have to have a mindset of walking into the room and you could be the lone [student] voice.”

The student rep position was created in 2015 as a symbol of including students in decisions that affect them. But in one of Genene's earliest meetings on the district redesign, he felt compelled to call out district staff for failing to gather comprehensive student feedback despite years of work on the issue. Adult board members didn’t want to take up any class time, but it was a tradeoff he was willing to make, Genene recalls.

“That was probably my biggest experience of going, ‘There’s been hundreds of people working on this for how long and nobody thought of that?’”

It’s hard to get students interested in district politics when their representative on the board doesn’t get to vote, says Janaan Ahmed, who served in the position before Genene.

“If we can't vote, it's not motivating to look closely at educational policies because it's like, ‘I don't really have a say.’ And as much as adults claim they love hearing students speak, they don't like when students tell them what to do.”

Ahmed is a Henry graduate interning with Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando and attending Minneapolis Community and Technical College for educational policy. Two years ago, she led a student campaign to change the name of Patrick Henry High School, named for a Virginia slaveowner.

Ahmed joined the school board to push for a more realistic curriculum, but found that the student rep position did more to improve her resume than conditions for Minneapolis students.

“I don’t think I really accomplished much in terms of actual change,” Ahmed says. “I think the presence that I had on the school board was powerful in itself, because I was advocating for things that a lot of adults don't have the courage to say. And being a Black Muslim girl, I can advocate for different identities that are being marginalized within education and how that begins, how that is overlooked. But the biggest thing that I feel like I accomplished was my personal agenda in networking for myself.”

Gabriel Spinks, who was student board rep in 2017, believes the position should be enfranchised. At the same time, he warns that power would come with much more work and responsibility. The student rep would have to attend more meetings, develop a deeper understanding of the many complicated issues under consideration, and have a firm grasp of procedure, including Robert’s Rules of Order.

These were things he had to learn on the job, Spinks says, because no one fully trains the student rep on the basics of governing a school district. “I was just told, ‘If you want to say something, press that button.’ And that was kind of how the training went. There wasn’t really anything.”

“At the time, and even now, I would say there’s not really a clear role for the student rep outside of going to board meetings and making it your own. And it’s tough, not having a clear direction of what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Genene and Spinks are now working together in an autonomous group of about 30 students – unsponsored by the district – who are studying long-term school safety alternatives to SROs. If any Minneapolis Public Schools student is interested in helping, Genene asks to be emailed at [email protected]