Student representatives on Montclair school board plan to advocate for all
The two Montclair Board of Education student representatives for the 2022-23 school year plan to advocate for students across the district, not just their fellow high schoolers.
As student board representatives, senior Justin Comini and junior Jacob Kugelmass are invited to speak at board meetings, communicate closely with board members and introduce initiatives and projects that support students.
Comini also served as a student board representative during the 2021-22 school year. The student representatives are elected by the Montclair High School student body.
In an effort to ensure they are hearing the thoughts of all students – from their classmates at Montclair High School to first graders at the elementary schools – Comini and Kugelmass are planning a new way to keep communication flowing. Last year, Comini and the other representative arranged meetings with middle school student leaders, but the meetings were complicated to organize and inconsistent.
To avoid the hassle of coordinating one-off conversations, Comini and Kugelmass want to establish a student coalition, made up of middle and elementary school students who are involved in their respective school governments.
“It's easy for us to say, ‘Oh, we're high schoolers, so we know what high schoolers are going through,’” Kugelmass said. “But it's important that we also focus on middle schoolers, because we are students reps, we are supposed to represent everyone. And so it's important we strive to do that.”
By working with school administrators to establish semi-regular meetings, the two hope to make space for younger students to feel heard.
“The goal is that there is going to always be a constant way to be able to speak with them,” Comini said.
Maintaining communication between the schools and families is also important, the board representatives said. One of their goals is to create a club education night for district parents. Comments made by a district parent in May disparaging gender and sexuality alliances in the district opened Comini’s eyes to how much parents and the community do not know about clubs in the district.
“Our parents and our community don't fully know what's going on within our schools, specifically in clubs, because there's no set curriculum for clubs and there's no set way to run a club,” Comini said. “I think it’s a part of a bigger conversation of communication within our district.”
While relationships with students and families are important, Kugelmass said he was particularly focused on building relationships with board members and school administrators. By meeting frequently with Jeffrey Freeman, Montclair High School principal, and others in power, Kugelmass said he hoped he could communicate the thoughts and concerns of students.
“It's my first year so I'm definitely feeling optimistic,” Kugelmass said. “I think you have to be optimistic if you want to try and achieve something. To go into it thinking that this is pointless and that I'm not going to get anything done, then I won’t get anything done.”
Comini, who at times felt frustrated by slow progress during the 2021-22 school year, said they are excited for the coming school year.
“I’m optimistic that this year is going to be different,” Comini said. “I do feel as if toward the end of the year things started to progress and hopefully we can pick up where we left off.”
One of the last school year’s projects that Comini and Kugelmass are hoping to continue is the addition of relaxation rooms to Montclair schools.
In collaboration with Restorative Justice Montclair and school administrators, the student board representatives for the 2021-22 school year advocated for a space for students to relax and recharge, away from the hustle and bustle of the high school hallways. At a June 14 open house, Montclair High School leaders unveiled exactly that — a student drop-in center staffed by a guidance counselor, stocked with coloring pages, chalk and games.
Comini and Kugelmass plan to advocate for similar types of rooms in all of the Montclair schools, to provide students with spaces that prioritize mental health and safe spaces.
“Mental health needs to stay a priority for this school year,” Comini said. “The lasting effects of the pandemic are still very much with us.”
The two representatives are also discussing other ways to lighten the load of students in the district, such as banning homework during breaks and long weekends.