Local teen’s voice is heard

Williston’s Harris earns state-level appointment

June 23, 2011

By Adam White
Observer staff
Champlain Valley Union High School junior Laura Harris, 16, has been appointed to a two-year term as a student representative on Vermont’s State Board of Education. A former legislative page at the Vermont State House, Harris was chosen from a pool of 29 applicants. (Observer photo by Adam White)

Laura Harris knows how powerful a single voice can be.

The 16-year-old from Williston played a part in shaping the current curriculum at Champlain Valley Union High School, where she is entering her junior year.

“For the last two years, I have taken Chinese classes at CVU,” Harris said. “This year they weren’t going to offer Chinese III, so I wrote letters to the administration pushing to get the class offered – and now it will be.

“That made me realize that students do have a voice in the education system.”

Harris’s voice will now formally become part of that system. She was recently appointed to the Vermont Board of Education as one of its two student representatives. Harris will serve a two-year term in the seat vacated by Robert Kelly of Otter Valley Union High School, as a non-voting member in her first year and a voting member in her second.

“It should be really interesting to see how policies get made, and where the ideas come from,” Harris said.

Despite her age, Harris is no stranger to politics. In fact, she has already experienced the inner machinations behind the scenes at the state level – and it had whetted her appetite to get more involved.

“In eighth grade, I was a legislative page and got to work in the State House every day,” Harris said. “It is one thing to read about politics in the newspaper; it’s another thing to see it happen right in front of you.”

The Board “develops the state’s strategic plan” for education, according to Jill Remick, communications director for the Vermont Department of Education. When it came time to fill Kelly’s position, a statewide call was put out and the initial pool measured 29 applicants.

“We tried to cast as wide a net as possible,” said Susan Spaulding, Vermont’s director of appointments to boards and commissions.

A selection committee whittled the number of applicants down to three, and conducted interviews with the finalists. Harris received a phone call a few days later, from an assistant to Gov. Peter Shumlin.

“I was asked to come in and meet with the Governor,” Harris said. “I had met him a few times before, so I was familiar with him – but I was still really nervous.”

Those butterflies abated as the two talked shop, and realized they shared some similar views.

“He explained to me his positions on education, and the direction he wants to see the education system go in,” Harris said. “One thing that he and I both agreed on was having a more individualized approach to education, catered toward students’ interests and learning styles, rather than things like standardized tests.”

Before receiving any outright confirmation from Gov. Shumlin, Harris picked up on some verbal clues indicating that she had been chosen for the Board.

“He kept saying ‘when you are on the Board,’ and that kind of spoiled it,” Harris said with a laugh. “At that point, I was pretty sure I had gotten (the appointment).”

Harris will miss the newly configured Board’s first meeting while she travels to Serbia, but will begin attending monthly meetings in September along with the other student representative, Liz Strano from Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington. Remick said that the inclusion of the students on the Board is mutually beneficial.

“It’s invaluable to have student voices at the table, to participate, ask questions and provide a perspective that the other board members don’t have,” Remick said. “It’s great for the students as well, to have that kind of input at the state level.”

Harris views the experience as a new chapter in a story she has already begun to explore.
“I’m a part of the education system every day, in the role of student,” Harris said. “I think any student can bring a valuable perspective to the Board.”