TAMPA — The questions Tuesday from Hillsborough County student leaders covered a wide range of topics, from exam exemptions to life skills training to waterless urinals.
The answers from School Board members generally boiled down to this: Get out and vote. Vote for a Legislature that won't withhold funds to build and maintain schools, making it impossible to renovate aging King High School.
And, from member Susan Valdes: Watch the debate in Congress about whether insurers should cover contraception for women. "Think about that," she said, after stating emphatically that abstinence is best. "That is taking women back a long time."
Valdes' remark, coming in response to a question from Armwood High School's Ashlee Townsend about child care for teen mothers, was one of the more politically pointed in an exchange that focused mostly on day-to-day student concerns.
The student forum is a yearly ritual for the Hillsborough school district. Kids fire questions at board members, who applaud them for their intelligence and then answer the best they can.
This group wanted to know why they are hit with so many different exams in their senior year. Several wanted time to study, or tour college campuses, or learn life skills before leaving school.
Christina Aviles from the Waters Career Center wanted to know why homeschooled kids can participate in extracurricular activities in their neighborhood schools while career center students cannot.
Good question, Valdes said.
Leto High's Nicole Jones wanted to know how to increase parent involvement. "We've asked that question every single year," said member Carol Kurdell.
Several asked about transportation. Jamar Crew of Brandon High said kids sometimes have to ride three to a seat. "Shouldn't the safety of our students be most important?" he asked. Others suggested HARTline give free passes so kids could stay after school for activities.
There were comments about Empowering Effective Teachers, the Gates-funded initiative that has teachers submitting to peer evaluations. Students wondered: Shouldn't they, too, be allowed to perform evaluations?
Member Doretha Edgecomb acknowledged that not enough people are versed in the Gates project. She invited students and their parents to attend an informational meeting 7 p.m. today at Robinson High School.
Several board members implored the teens to register and vote if they want to see public schools get the funding they need and if they want districts to have more autonomy. Case in point: High school semester exams had to be scheduled after the winter break because the state does not allow school to begin until late August.
"Unfortunately, the Legislature was lobbied very heavily by the tourist industry, because you are their workers," Kurdell said.
Valdes responded favorably to a suggestion from Strawberry Crest High School that foreign languages be taught in the elementary years.
And member Jack Lamb agreed the time has come for more waterless urinals.
"You're right," he told Daniel Troya of Jefferson High School. "They save a considerable amount of money and, thinking about the environment, water."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3356.