Boards student rep gets lesson in activism
Wilson's Henry Li lends student voice to PPS decisions
Henry Li wanted to get plastic bottles out of high school vending machines.
He wanted to change Portland Public Schools' contracting process to give incentives to those who meet certain environmental standards.
He wanted to include student input as a factor in the school district's new teacher evaluation system.
None of that quite happened this past year, during Li's year-long term as student representative to the Portland School Board.
But the Wilson High School senior -- who graduated last week -- isn't deterred from politics forever.
"It was hard and sobering," when he realized mid-year that the district's bureaucracy wouldn't allow all of the change he'd envisioned, he says. "If I go into politics -- I don't know if I will -- you have to have idealism. But it's a reality check."
Li, who wraps up voluntary service to the board this month, has better things to think about than the things he might've done.
He's headed to Harvard University in the fall on a prestigious Gates Millenium scholarship, which is awarded to 1,000 minority students in the nation each year with significant financial need.
In Oregon, 32 Gates scholars were awarded, including six others from PPS (Ethan Zerpa-Blanco from Lincoln, Khang Truong from Benson, Brendan Fountaine from Grant, Mako Gedi and Van Anh Vu from Madison, and Khalil Jabbie from Roosevelt).
Four others from public schools in Portland also received the honor: Chieh Chang from Reynolds High; Imbamba Mansaray from Centennial High; and Maryann Li and Alexander Tang from David Douglas High.
Li, a tall, lanky, bespectacled 18-year-old, says he's humbled by the award.
"It's a big responsibility," he says. "I think you have to pay it forward. It's a really clear message to give back."
Many Gates scholars have stories about troubled childhoods, their families experiencing homelessness, addictions, single-parent struggles or extreme poverty.
Li says his family isn't well-off -- his mother holds two jobs and his father is a metals worker -- but he considers himself lucky to have been raised in Southwest Portland in a comfortable home, by two loving parents. "I'm incredibly blessed," he says.
He immigrated with his parents from China when he was 5, not speaking any English.
In his early years at Hayhurst Elementary, he remembers being startled by an earthquake drill: "All the kids were under their desks; I didn't know what was going on."
He picked up English quickly, however. He credits the Start Making a Reader Today (SMART) program for giving him the early fluency skills he needed. He also took speech classes and English Language Learner classes in his early years.
When his family moved a short distance away, he attended Rieke Elementary and then Robert Gray Middle School.
At Wilson, Li's packed his course load with advanced placement classes; he has five this semester, including AP Spanish, in which he earned the only B of his high school career.
With seven semesters of perfect As, he's recognized as a valedictorian by PPS standards. But by Wilson's definition, he needed the full eight.
At least Li had a good excuse. The past year, he's spent at least four hours each week at school board meetings, plus another hour or two beforehand on meeting prep. He had to quickly get up to speed on everything from equity training and graduation rates to high school schedules and building conditions.
"I have a lot of graphs and charts next to my writing stuff in my room," he says.
In his free time, Li likes creative writing (he's working on his second novel), mentors students at Rieke, and hangs out with special needs students at Wilson through a club called "Circle of Friends."
Like many young people, Li got the bug for activism when he started high school and was both enlightened and disturbed by history and current events in his global studies class.
Issues like the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the U.S. health care reform bill debate got him riled up. A teacher suggested that he check out serving on the school board, which allows for the student rep to cast a vote, although it does not carry weight.
The seat is an elected one from the student group known as SuperSac (an advisory group to Superintendent Carole Smith), which Li has been involved with for three years.
"I was always complaining," he says. "Now I have a platform to create some change."
During his service, Li lobbied for a student voice on the district's Bond Development Committee, and served in that role. He also served on the related Long Range Facilities Plan Advisory Committee, both of which he thought were worthy processes.
As a student board rep, Li has had a direct line to the district's sustainability coordinator and the teacher's union. He helped craft the budget, and created a group of young leaders called the Student Union, an umbrella to SuperSac which also represents every high school in district.
Next year's student board representative, incoming senior Alexia Garcia of Lincoln High, hopes to follow in Li's footsteps as a vocal advocate for her peers.
"I just want to make sure decisions are made in the students' best interest," she says. "I feel that often everything gets political and the focus no longer is on the students, but other people and programs within PPS."