Grant High senior will air teens' issues before school board

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Andrew Davidson, a Portland native who came up through the ranks of Portland Public Schools, is excited to talk about innovative new ways to improve the schools. His first two years of high school, Andrew Davidson says he was bored.

He took a full schedule of classes and was active in band, but felt burned out without being engaged in anything that intellectually stimulated him.

Instead of dropping out, he dropped in — on a Portland School Board meeting. “I tried to decide who was the mastermind behind all these decisions being made,” the 17-year-old says.

It was a life-changing event. The incoming senior at Grant High School is now part of the seven-member volunteer Portland School Board, helping to create and oversee policies, budgets and priorities for the school district he grew up in.

“It’s definitely different from sitting in the audience,” Davidson says.

In his first month, Davidson has hit the ground running, taking in updates on the $482 million school modernization work and other items of business at the first board meeting of the year on July 17.

He’s also just one of two board members who’ve chosen to sit in on the bargaining sessions between district leaders and the Portland teachers’ union. “The negotiations have been telling,” Davidson says. “Teachers aren’t respected enough.”

Davidson’s mom has been a longtime teacher at Glencoe Elementary, where he went to school, and some of his pet projects he’ll hope to bring to the board’s attention involve the needs of teachers.

One of them is a student feedback form for teachers, that would be for teachers’ eyes only. The point is to let teachers know what’s working and what’s not, to improve their practice.

SuperSAC — the superintendent’s advisory group of high school students — has been leading the charge on this effort and nearly got it to roll out as a pilot project before it was sidelined by politics.

Davidson is hopeful to revive it and carry it forward. He’d worked on it closely with his predecessor, Alexia Garcia, as she served on the board last year as a senior at Lincoln High.

Davidson also will carry the torch on other SuperSAC priorities, since that is the body that elected him to serve on the school board.

Students from across the district have used SuperSAC as a political body to lobby for their biggest issues, like retaining the TriMet Youth Pass after it was nearly cut in the budget process.

Another issue that rose to the public radar last year was the “opt-out” movement, a protest against over-reliance on standardized tests. Garcia rallied publicly for that cause, and Davidson was right alongside, she says. As a junior last year he opted out of his science test, but he’d already taken his math and reading tests earlier in the year.

“I wish I could go back and opt out” of those tests, he says now, noting that he’ll be doing everything he can to call attention to this cause this year.

Another less glamorous but critical item on his to-do list will be rewriting the policy for SuperSAC and the PPS Student Union, another body that’s risen up as a forum for youth activism.

Both bodies are meant to include representation from every high school across the district, but in reality, they don’t, Davidson says. He wants to ensure that every school has a voice through their own student leader.

SuperSAC and student union leaders have a summit set for Aug. 1 and 2 to identify their priorities for this year.

Davidson’s other priorities as a board member are more universal: advocating for a larger education budget, more efficient spending, more transparency and community involvement, with a particular focus on student involvement.

Student board member terms are for one year, not four years, and student votes do not count for the record. “It would be nice to have a vote because sometimes it just feels like you’re sitting there for nothing,” Davidson says. “But it would be hard with just one year (of service).”

“As a student rep not much is expected of me,” he adds, “but I try to rise to the occasion.”

Listening to us’

A native of Northeast Portland, Davidson always knew he’d go to Grant — his father went there, as did his grandfather, aunt, great aunt and great uncle. His little sister will be a freshman there next year.

He never imagined he’d wind up an activist. He skipped student council all through school; he didn’t see the point.

His life has revolved around music, playing trumpet in the Grant jazz ensemble and wind ensemble for three years, but this year he’ll have to quit to make room for board activities.

There’s a huge binder of reading materials for each meeting, and the board meets at length weekly for public hearings and work sessions. It’s enough to make a part-time job impossible, he says, although he will be on Grant’s esteemed Constitution Team this year, which also is a major commitment.

Grant always has been a hot seat for school politics, given the community’s active role. Davidson says he was a fan of former Principal Vivan Orlen, and welcomes former Benson Principal Carol Campbell to campus as she starts her role.

“I hope for a principal that will fight for what the students need, rather than what outside forces say we need,” he says. “I’m hoping she’ll listen to us.”

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