High school student reflects on his historic tenure with the Washington Board of Education
Okanogan High School graduate McKenna Roberts plays college football and loves travel, photography, music and hiking. She is also passionate about student rights and represents young people in rural communities.
For the past two years, she has served as an East Washington student delegate to the Washington State Board of Education. This 16-member group oversees the development and oversight of policies governing K-12 education. Roberts has helped shed light on bills for sex education, ethnic studies, and emergency waivers for graduation requirements, as well as supporting student mental health.
During the recent legislative session, she and fellow youth council member Pavan Venkatakrishnan of Bellevue proposed a bill and successfully urged lawmakers to approve council voting rights for future student leaders. Previously, the youth delegates had only an advisory role, sharing their opinions with the adult members of the voting council.
This fall, Roberts is heading east to Barnard College to study political science and human rights as part of a pre-law major. The Seattle Times Education Lab sat down with her just before her term expires this month to discuss the role of students in educational decision-making and how policies can be improved by taking into account of the diverse experiences of the students.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
What inspired you to apply to be a student delegate to the State Board of Education?
I think it really came down to my passion for advocacy, because I’ve been doing it since I was quite young. I joined the Okanogan Youth Leadership Council, which is one of the only ways for teens in rural communities to get involved. We advocated a lot for Washington’s sex education bill, which passed. This was my introduction to education policy. … It was definitely a lot of work but it was worth it for sure.
What’s it like to be a young member of a mostly adult board? What should future youth representatives know about this role?
It was definitely a difficult transition. I won’t lie about it. People who work on the board have master’s degrees and doctorates and things like that, and they’ve been studying these issues and working in this field for decades in general. But the importance of having students on the board is lived experience, I think. Just because people went to high school doesn’t mean they really know what it was like, especially during a pandemic. Sometimes lived experience, I think, can even trump fancy credentials.
Also, a lot is expected of the pupils of the council. The [are] various committees to join. I was on the legislative committee, because that’s really what [piqued] my interest. This is how I was able to participate in so many pleas in the student vote bill. But it’s definitely a lot of work and a lot of time to put in on top of being a regular high school student. I represent literally a million students in Washington right now and it can be a heavy burden. But everyone on the board is very supportive and really wants students to take the reins.
It’s a lot to carry. How do you try to keep in touch with so many students and represent them?
I think that was one of my biggest goals in serving on the board from the start. I think in the past a lot of students would speak from their own experience, which is certainly always valuable. Throughout my tenure on the board, we have had partnerships with the Association of Washington Student Leaders. We also created our own special cohort of students who wanted to advise Pavan and me. We also had good partnerships with the Youth Legislative Advisory Council. But I think something that I found a little difficult was: how do you reach students who haven’t got their foot in the door yet with these clusters of acronyms?
I definitely urge future students who serve on the council to look beyond the kids who are already involved in these student voice groups, because often the people we most need to hear from are those who don’t. have no access to … these different groups of students. Even if everyone has the best intentions, they can still be exclusive, even if it’s unintentional.
Pavan and I have our own unique experiences because he goes to Interlake High School in Bellevue, which is dramatically different from Okanogan High School in Okanogan County. So I think having different students on the board really helps. Reaching just beyond the rural communities to the unrepresented communities in general can certainly be a struggle with only two student representatives on the board.
How did you feel about making history and championing student voting rights on council? What did you learn from this experience?
I definitely learned to accept rejection. [Laughs] It was something I hadn’t really had to deal with, especially speaking with people who hold so much power in the state. It was also a confidence booster to transform some opinions that we didn’t think we were going to win. [Smiles] I don’t think he has yet understood that he has indeed passed. (The bill, SSB 5497, passed with 60 yeses and 38 noes and takes effect June 9.)