Fontainebleau High student Brett Stowe didn’t know what to expect when he was called to the front office only four days into the school year.
“I was a little nervous, but when they told me (why I was there,) I was very excited,” the 15-year-old sophomore said.
Stowe is one 32 students from across the parish who have assumed leadership roles as members of the St. Tammany Parish Schools Superintendent’s new Student Advisory Panel.
The Student Advisory Panel first gathered last year, and it is composed of some of the finest student leaders in the eight parish high schools. The idea was an inspiration that came from outside the area, Superintendent Trey Folse said.
“It all started with a conference I was attending,” Folse said. “Another superintendent had his student advisory panel there with him. I thought, ‘This is great.’ I spoke with him about the format, what worked and what didn’t work. I brought it back here, we discussed it and everybody was on board. I think it’s one of the best things we’ve implemented.”
Students, selected by their principals, meet once per month at a different parish high school. Each of the eight high schools is represented on the panel, with one student from each grade (freshman through senior) selected to serve.
The student stays in the program throughout his or her entire high school experience, which allows for students to grow within the program and expand their role as they mature, Folse said.
"That’s part of the beauty of the program," Folse said. "As they grow older, they change and they gain more confidence."
Stowe said Folse has asked the panelists to be candid and supports a freeform exchange of ideas.
“It feels good to be in this leadership role,” he said. “Superintendent Folse can’t be in every classroom in every school each day, so this is the next best thing.”
For 16-year-old Covington High School junior Kelly Barre, being invited to join the panel was the perfect opportunity to contribute to her school community.
“I was really excited when they told me I would be on the superintendent’s panel,” she said. “I always wanted to work to help improve the school, through student council and such. This allows me to fulfill my wish to help voice my opinion and the opinion of my friends. It’s great to get input and give insight as to what we are thinking about.”
Students cover a variety of topics such as school board policies, technology in schools, curriculum, social media, communications and more, Public Schools Communications Director Meredith Mendez said.
“The panel allows one-on-one time with students in an environment where they are comfortable talking freely about their schools and the school system as a whole,” she said. “We try to have monthly meetings. At the end of the school year, the panel will be invited to the School Board meeting to be recognized.”
This year, Barre has been interested particularly in campus safety issues. She’s discussed them with fellow student panelists and Folse at the meetings.
“We have talked about everything, but I think the most important thing we have discussed is safety and technology on campus. We talk about policies, and discipline, which is a big issue,” she said. “We really have a lot of flexibility to talk about all kinds of things, and that has been great.”
For Stowe, one of his goals is geared toward academics — to address the needs of technology and testing in the schools.
“We have been talking about the need for advancements in technology for standardized testing," he said. "There has been a push to move all testing to be on computers, but we have found through practice testing that the computers don’t always function in the best way. We would like to address that.”
Rotating meetings from school to school gives panelists a glimpse at a fellow student’s daily experience. Folse said that's important to creating better unity within the school system.
“We found that many students had never visited another high school," he said. "Each host school, those students give a history of the school and a tour. They get a unique perspective of what it’s like to attend a different school from the student’s point of view. I like how the students visit with each other. They have grown closer and talk with one another, encourage one another.”
Stowe noted a recent eye-opening experience through the advisory meeting rotation.
“We met at Salmen High School (in Slidell) two meetings ago,” he said. “It was so great to see a school that had gone through a setback with Hurricane Katrina, and now it looks great and is so beautiful. It gave me a new experience and it shows what other schools have to offer.”
Mendez agreed, noting the students requested the meeting experience.
“We started that last part this year at the students’ request because the vast majority of them said they don’t ever have an opportunity to go to another school except for sporting events, and they don’t know much about the other high schools,” she said.
According to Barre, fellow students and faculty alike know they can go to her with concerns.
“I have friends and other students come to me all the time with things they’d like for us to talk about. I even have teachers suggest things that we could bring up during the advisory panel meeting. It makes me feel so good to know that they can come to me and I can be their voice,” she said.
Folse echoed those sentiments, noting the experience is just as enriching for administrators as it is students.
“We have learned a lot from them, and I think they have learned a lot from us,” he said. “It really helps to teach them about the decisions we make and why, and we also get to learn about things from their perspective.
“They are free to talk to us openly as long as they do so respectfully, and from the beginning, there has been nothing but respect on both sides.”