Amiah Hanson is only a 16-year-old sophomore at Durango High School, but she might be playing as big a role as anyone not sitting on Durango’s Board of Education in finding the district’s next superintendent.
She’s helping organize student input and involvement as Durango School District 9-R begins its search for the person who is ultimately responsible for the quality of education available to Durango’s youngsters.
Students serving as advisers on governing boards provide fresh perspectives and sometimes unique insights that might be difficult for more seasoned and perhaps more cynical eyes to see. The boards also provide teenagers with opportunities to develop leadership and citizenship skills.
“Andrea Parmenter and Kristin Smith were the board members that helped me lead a focus group,” Amiah said about an early effort to engage students in the search for a new district leader.
She added, “I think it’s really cool, even though our attendance wasn’t huge for it. Still, the people that did come, it was really good to hear from them, and I think we offered lots of unique perspectives that aren’t necessarily always present in adults because the students are the ones in the building, right?”
Amiah said going forward she’ll be working with the DHS Student Council to organize meetings with superintendent finalists to continue providing student voices during the selection process.
9-R isn’t alone seeking the perspectives from Durangoans too young to vote.
Established in 2009, the city of Durango’s Mayor’s Youth Advisory Commission brings together 15 high school-age students – introducing them to city government, encouraging youth participation in community issues and fostering civic engagement.
Thomas Pope, 17, a junior at DHS, and the finance director for the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Commission, said a big frustration for the group this year was that COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the group’s major event, a job fair called JIVE, for Jobs, Internships, Volunteering and Experience.
As a freshman, Pope attended a JIVE fair where he learned about the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Commission, or MYAC.
“I was very interested in history and government, and I’ve always tried to stay civically engaged and I keep up with current events,” he said. “I’m in the speech and debate club at the high school. So when I saw this opportunity to participate with the local government, I jumped right on it.”
Pope said he has always followed national issues and national politics, but his time on MYAC has revealed to him the importance of governance and politics at the local level.
“I definitely learned about the subtle things that local government can do for communities. Everyone watches the news and only cares about the national government and the president,” he said. “But when I was able to participate in local government, I really realized what they can do for their own community and how they might help the lives of the people in their community.”
In keeping with the spirit of local governments helping at the grassroots, Pope said MYAC decided to create COVID Stress Relief Boxes this year as a way to help the young people of Durango persevere during the pandemic.
The boxes, which contain playing cards, stress-relief squeeze balls, face masks, art materials, and suicide-prevention information and hotline phone numbers, are aimed at providing ways for young people to relax and escape some of the stress of the pandemic or to get help in the most serious cases of depression.
“We’ve always wanted to do a mental health campaign, and it didn’t come to fruition last year,” he said. “Then this year, with COVID-19, the stress levels within teens definitely heightened. So we thought that we could do something to try to help that out as much as we could.”
In the past, MYAC has not weighed in heavily on issues before City Council, but Pope would like to see the commission move in the direction of offering advice to councilors about important local issues.
“Last year, Dean Brookie came to one of our meetings and talked about the 32nd Street Bridge and parks and rec, the Oxbow project, making that nicer,” he said. “He told us about them and asked for our opinions, but that definitely hasn’t been the focus of MYAC. I think it would be a really cool opportunity to be able to move into that, to still provide services to youth, but also voice that youth opinion to City Council.”
Melissa Youssef, City Council liaison on MYAC, said students have representatives on all of the city’s boards and commissions, and it offers a way for city councilors to stay in touch with their youngest constituents.
“There were discussions around the skateboard park, keeping it a clean and healthy place, and involvement from the kids was key, and ultimately, we got lighting, shade structures and water out to that area,” she said.
Smith, president of the Durango school board, said student participation is important going forward in the search for the new superintendent, and finalists will likely have a meeting either in person or on Zoom to meet students.
“I think it’s important as a superintendent that you can also hang out with students and work with them and have a conversation with them,” she said. “That’s a very valuable skill to be able to relate to the students. That was something Amiah brought forward, and she really was interested in helping out and facilitating that for us.”