‘The most rewarding thing I’ve ever done’

Two veteran school board members reflect on their journeys to inspire others, from sharing why they decided to run to providing highlights of their work.

By Team XQ

Current school board members reflect on their journeys to inspire others.

Serving on a school board can be exhausting. It can be frustrating. It can mean late nights and tough decisions.

But Rita Booher has not regretted a moment of it.

“It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,” she said. “I love the idea that as a school board member, I can focus on one thing. All my attention goes to the schools.”

Inspiring People to Get Involved

Booher, who serves on the Elizabethton City School board in Tennessee, shared her wisdom and enthusiasm at the SXSWEDU Conference and Festival last week in Austin, Texas. She was among three school board members leading a workshop, organized by XQ, called “High School Transformation…That’s a School Board Thing.” The two-hour session inspired people to get involved in their local school boards — by attending meetings, getting to know candidates and board members, and maybe running for office themselves.

She and her co-panelists spoke about their personal experiences on their boards and shared tips for getting involved and promoting high school innovation at the board level. They also facilitated exercises among participants about education priorities, community engagement, and long-term goals.

Much of the material covered in the two-hour panel is included in XQ’s “Rethinking High School: That’s a School Board Thing,” a free, comprehensive guide to spur involvement in our nation’s school boards. The guide is available online, as an audiobook, and in print.

A Deep Commitment to the Community’s Young People

Booher’s path to her local school board started 12 years ago when friends asked her to run to fill a vacancy on the 5-member board in rural northeastern Tennessee. She had been a longtime volunteer at her children’s schools and comes from a family of educators. As a lifelong resident of Elizabethton, she felt deeply committed to the community’s young people.

Still, making the leap from school board observer to board member was daunting, she said.

“They kept saying, ‘We need people! We need people!” she said. “Finally, I ran out of excuses. And I have never regretted it.”

The rewards have been great, she said. As a board member, she’s fought for infrastructure improvements and seen graduation rates increase to 94.4 percent, among the highest rates in the state. She’s also supported theBartleby program at Elizabethton High, a student-designed program focused on community improvement and entrepreneurship that grew from two courses to a schoolwide effort to rethink high school.

The changes she’s pushed for at the secondary level have shown results well beyond the walls of Elizabethton High School, she said.

“When you change high school, it really is a fulcrum,” she said. “Our junior high and even our elementary school are starting to do the same things our high school is doing. We’re even seeing the community get involved.”

High school transformation is what’s motivating Ashney Shelly to get involved with the school board in her hometown of Cold Spring, Texas. Shelly, a high school counselor and future law student who attended the SXSWEDU panel last week, hopes to bring her expertise and enthusiasm to benefit young people in her community. She’s even considering a run for school board herself, in the coming years.

Transparency and Communication

“My family attends these schools. I’ve worked in education for 10 years. I know what needs to be done,” she said. “I feel that by thinking outside the box, we can make positive changes in our schools. That’s what I hope to do.”

Booher’s colleague on the school board panel, Cipriano Vargas, also traces his political career to a deep commitment to his community. Recently elected to the Vista Unified school board, Vargas graduated from Vista High, attended college locally, and has taught kindergarten. He has several family members enrolled in Vista Unified, and is genuinely committed to the young people in this suburb of San Diego.

Running for school board and serving his community has always been a life goal.

“I decided to run because I wanted to give something back to the community I grew up in,” he said. “I wanted to help provide students with the same opportunities I had, so they’ll be prepared for the 21st century and get the skills they need to succeed.”

For him, the key to being a successful school board member is transparency and communication. It helps him forge strong relationships with the community and ultimately makes him a more effective board member, he said.

“My advice is to follow the issues, talk to teachers and parents and other stakeholders, do your homework,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing — to make our schools better.”

He added: “And remember, the work we do is going to have an impact five, 10, 15 years from now. Today’s students are going to be better off because of the work you’re doing now.”