Metropolitan Business Academy sophomore Nico Rivera, who knows what it’s like to be bullied, will take over as the student representative on the Board of Education with a vow to help make schools safe.
Two other students pulled petition sheets, but Rivera was the only one who submitted enough signatures to run. He collected at least 100, half of which had to come from five other high schools besides his own, according to rules set during the last charter revision.
On Friday at City Hall, the clerk officially called the election. Replacing Jacob Spell, a senior who’s heading to Yale, Rivera will take the oath of office in early July.
“I believe it’s time that the youth stand up,” Rivera said. “We need to stand together for more unity among schools and neighborhoods around the city, voice our need for more hands-on learning relevant to life outside of school, find more opportunities for collaboration and grants for student support, and find ways to fund extracurricular activities like sports, music and visual arts.”
The son of two Army veterans, Rivera is a natural-born leader. “Those little skills that we can’t teach, he just has them,” observed his old principal, Luis Menacho.
While his parents were away, Rivera and his three siblings were raised in Fair Haven by his grandmother. He finished elementary school at John S. Martinez School, where he was bullied about his weight.
“I can stand here today and tell every single one of you it wasn’t that easy,” he said. “Dealing with not enough food on the table, violence, and the person raising you battling concern — the things I grew up seeing and experiencing weren’t that great. Some things were so bad that, to this day, I can’t unsee them.”
A member of the Air Force Auxillary’s Civil Air Patrol, Rivera plans to one day join the military.
On the board, Rivera said, he plans to focus on improving climate and updating lessons. He said he wants schools to be the one place where students can feel safe for six hours each day, despite whatever else is going on at home.
Even though they can’t vote themselves, the Board of Ed’s student members have played a crucial role in representing student interests on the body, pointing out administrative confusion at Hillhouse High School and drawing attention to the need for more security guards and guidance counselors. Coral Ortiz caught — and stopped — a charter school from recruiting students without the Board of Education’s approval.
“As we move into what boards are intended to do, which is setting policy, it’s really important that we understand what it feels like to be a student in New Haven,” Mayor Toni Harp said. “I want you to know that your voice is important. It will help us frame policy, from a knowledgeable point of view.”
Expecting that several students would step up to claim a spot on the board, a committee was all set to put on a city-wide election. They’d even brokered a deal with the city clerk’s office to borrow voting machines, saving $10,000. But voting was called off, when only one student came forward.
Joe Rodriguez, the school board’s newest member, attended the last citywide student council meeting to find out why. As first reported by the New Haven Register, he said he heard a number of explanations from high school leaders, including a lack of information and interest.
“At certain schools, perhaps the word wasn’t spread out as much as it should have been,” Rodriguez said at the last board meeting. Some students said “that it was the first time they were hearing about it.”
Others said they had no interest in being part of a contentious board where they couldn’t vote. During last year’s superintendent search, as board members threatened each other with lawsuits and duels, students expressed a clear preference for a different candidate than Carol Birks. Some adults, like Youth Services Director Jason Bartlett, wrote off their opposition as manipulation by adults.
“Some felt that as non-voting members, they don’t have a voice at the board,” Rodriguez said. “Others are concerned about the board culture and didn’t want to proceed.”
To address those concerns, the election committee plans to submit a report to the Board of Alders and the Board of Education with recommendations for boosting participation next year, which could include mentorship for students by school board members.