Teens eye equity, communication as reps to Montclair Board of Education
Samara Haynes, completing her junior year, said she hopes to help make schools more equitable in her new role as a student representative. (COURTESY SAMARA HAYNES)
By TALIA WIENER
Two Montclair High School students — Samara Haynes and Justin Comini — have been elected by the student body to serve as the student representatives on the Board of Education for the 2021-2022 school year.
“My goal is to amplify the voices and perspectives of all students in the school district,” Haynes, who is completing her junior year this week, said at her first board meeting as representative last month. “I aim to provide a voice on the board of education to those in younger grades, including those at the elementary and middle school levels.”
Senior Genesis Whitlock served as the district’s first student representative on the board during the 2020-2021 school year. Whitlock and two MHS other students asked for a student voice on the board at a Nov. 18, 2019 meeting and described a deep-seated perception among students that the central office and administration weren’t hearing their concerns.
Whitlock was approached by MHS administration and was asked to be the student representative, Whitlock was quoted saying in a blog post on the district’s site. At multiple board meetings, Whitlock said she felt the board did not follow through with promises to her, and she had not felt supported in her role.
"As for the Board of Education and everybody who believes in the work that I do, would you hear me if I didn't prepare a speech every night?” Whitlock said at the May 5 board meeting. “Would you still want to hear me if I outlined how painful this year and the past few years have been for me? Not knowing this answer clearly is what makes this role harmful because being student representative doesn't mean anything when you're sitting in a classroom and know that there is a systemic culture that underlies your voice regardless of what my title may be.”
Whitlock’s last meeting as student representative was May 5. She declined to comment for this article.
The board decided to switch to two student representatives on the board in an effort to divide the responsibility, Comini, who is completing his sophomore year this week, said.
Haynes, who served as junior class president, said she ran for the position of student representative hoping to find a way to address the main issues she and her classmates discussed — making schools more equitable, establishing clearer communication from the district to students and addressing rape culture at the high school.
“I want to find a way to maximize my impact,” Haynes said. “I want to find a way to take the changes that I have heard my peers asking for and make those happen.”
Haynes attended Montclair Kimberley Academy before transferring to Renaissance at Rand Middle School. She is a member of the MHS crew team and part of the Civics and Government Institute at MHS. She is also the North American Onboarding coordinator for Earth Uprising, a youth-led climate education initiative. Haynes is also involved in BBYO, an international Jewish youth group.
For Comini, who is involved in many activism groups, the student representative position seemed like another way to help his community, he said.
“As a young person, a big part of activism is getting people empowered to listen,” Comini said. “I thought if I was a young voice in the room, sharing what the students are saying, that I really would be able to hopefully make some change.”
Comini also plans to address issues of equity he said he and classmates have identified within the district — for instance, he said, school events should be held in central areas that are accessible to everyone. He also said that he plans to continue pushing for better mental health resources in the district, especially during the transition back to full-time in-person classes.
Comini is co-founder and co-president of End the Stigma, a mental health advocacy group for the school and community. He is also a member of Sisters on the Runway, a MHS club that raises money for women and children affected by domestic violence; and the Montclair Menstrual Club, which works to destigmatize menstrual cycles and provide period products to those who need them.
Comini is also the student representative and liaison to Out Montclair, a community nonprofit created to raise awareness and provide support and solidarity for the LGBTQIA+ community in Montclair. He attended Nishaune School, Hillside School and Glenfield Middle School.
Haynes and Comini said they plan to hold frequent conversations with their classmates and offer their support to clubs and students of all ages.
“We want to go the extra mile and make the effort to connect with all of the different voices that are amongst students at our high school and the middle schools,” Haynes said.
Comini said he has learned many lessons during the past year of mostly remote learning during a pandemic, but he said he has one main takeaway — you don’t know what people are going through.
“Everybody is going through something that we might not see,” Comini said. “I think it's important to have understanding within the community.”
Haynes said the pandemic has revealed something about the district that she hopes she can address in her new role — a lack of communication.
“It was a very chaotic time, and there wasn't a lot of transparency between the administration, students, and teachers,” Haynes said. “There have been times that I've shared new information about school policy during COVID with my teachers and they've said, ‘Oh, I didn't hear about that at all.’”
But both student representatives said they are hopeful they can have a positive impact on the district during their time with the board.
“I hope that we, collectively, can all come together and try to make change together because three voices isn't enough and four voices isn't enough,” Comini said. “To really make systemic change, especially in a school district that's been having ongoing issues for a very long time, it's important for everybody to try to come together and work together.”
Getting more input from students is a personal goal, Board member Allison Silverstein at the May 17 board meeting.
“I had a chance to meet Samara today and she was lovely,” Silverstein said. “I look forward to working with her and with Justin in the coming year and trying my best to listen more to the students.”