The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s student representative is getting a lot of public love after he grilled the adults in the room at an emergency board meeting this week.
Monday’s session may have been a preview of life in the age of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. For starters, it was called with only a few hours notice to vote on changes forced by the virus.
The pandemic means public interest in policy decisions is surging — but safety prohibits packing into meeting chambers. So the board met in a small room on the Government Center’s fifth floor with little space for an audience.
About 24,000 people tuned in to the Facebook stream, brought to them by a staffer with an iPhone.
Those viewers had a lot to say – more than 1,200 comments during a meeting that lasted about an hour. They trash-talked board members who audibly crinkled wrappers. When the lights unexpectedly went out, they wisecracked about doomsday and remarked on the symbolism of everyone being in the dark. And they offered lots of all-caps commentary about the things they wanted to know, like "ARE WE GETTING PAID FOR THIS TIME OFF?"
About halfway through the meeting, after reports from top administrators, the camera cut to a young man in a blue shirt.
"As a student, I think what I’m missing is an extraordinary lack of specifics on a lot of this stuff. So I’m just going to go down quite a few questions that I have," he began.
And question he did: What will online learning platforms look like? Will participation be tracked? What happens to our grades? How will this affect AP exams?
Board Chair Elyse Dashew moved on to other members. Board member Ruby Jones signaled that she wanted to speak.
"I was asking to be called on because I don’t think our student board member, Mr. Schuhl, had the opportunity to finish his questions," she said.
"Mr. Schuhl" is Gabe Schuhl, a 17-year-old junior at Ardrey Kell High. He loves current events and politics, which is how he ended up being selected by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council to serve as the board’s student adviser. At the meeting he looked a bit like a modern Clark Kent, hunched over his notebook when he wasn’t firing off questions.
As far as the online audience was concerned, he was Superman. Comments started popping up: "I love this kid! Best questioner in the room" … "the only voice of reason" … "give the mic back to the kid."
Schuhl says he did a lot of online research before the board meeting. Because he’s not an elected board member, he can neither vote nor attend the closed sessions where board members get up to speed before facing the public.
"I’m, on the other hand, like thinking on my feet through a lot of this stuff, so I make sure to take down every note I can to make sure I’m getting everything," he said afterward.
He relays what he learns through his Instagram account -- @gabrielschuhl -- figuring he’ll reach students who might not tune in to official channels.
Schuhl says he’s concerned about equity, transparency and continued learning. He hears teens talking about being robbed of a spring they’ll never get back, hunkered down at home when they should be going to proms, visiting colleges and having fun.
But he says there’s a lesson that’s more important than anything they’ll get from an online curriculum:
"This is our personal introduction to the fact that during times of crisis we must make tradeoffs and times will not be easy," he said, "so I think it’s important that students don’t see this as giving up their youth or giving up these things when there are people who are going to go through much harder times."
By the end of Monday’s meeting, the virtual crowd was heaping accolades on Schuhl, including "OMG this kid – please make him superintendent!"
Schuhl says he has a different trajectory in mind: Go to college, major in political science, follow up with law school. After that, he says, running for office might be cool.
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