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Despite policy, NHCS students still lack a voice in decision making process

Members of SV stand next to the program's adult leaders after the policy's passage in October.
Members of SV stand next to the program's adult leaders after the policy's passage in October.

Policy 4004, “Student Voice” (SV) was designed to encourage participation in board of education policy. But instead of engagement, so far the policy has mostly been successful in generating contention among board members.

After its passage in October 2022, the New Hanover County Board of Education is reconsidering Policy 4004, or Student Voice — a policy which tried to give students a voice at the decision-making table.

The policy has raised the ire of the board’s newer, conservative members — who all campaigned against diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

At recent meetings, Policy Committee Chair Josie Barnhart voiced the most interest in revisiting the policy, citing specific language and redundancies, but in the tangled discourse it’s been hard to parse concerns over the policy’s clarity from political concerns about what Student Voices might actually say.

Most of the board members have attested that hearing the input of students is invaluable. But now, seemingly, the future of the policy is unclear.


Policy 4004, or Student Voice (SV), is part of a larger national initiative of the same name.

Student Voice, created in 2012, seeks to “equip students as storytellers, organizers and partners who advocate for student-driven solutions to educational inequity.”

While the program seeks to give students a tangible role in policy making, a large part of their mission is to teach students about public policy and civil advocacy.

New Hanover County had already been doing a lot of this work prior to SV’s passage. Middle and high school student equity teams convened within the last couple years as was the Superintendent's Student Advisory Council. As a result, Policy 4004 only creates one new distinct structure, the NHCS Student Engagement Team, which supersedes the other groups. But the other previously existing groups are also now compartmentalized under one policy umbrella.

It seems that having three different structures — which sometimes have overlapping student membership — devoted to more or less the same cause has led to confusion and misinterpretation.

The adult leaders have resorted to bringing infographics to meetings to help sort out the confusion. And, at June’s policy meeting. Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust said he was unaware his student advisory group was a part of SV until recently.

SV staff advisor Schala Harper holds a chart to explain the structure of the policy to the board in June.
SV Adult leader Schala Harper holds a chart to explain the structure of the policy to the board in June.

The policy mandates that students from the engagement team are to be given a position on every board committee, but almost 10 months later, that has yet to happen.

Additionally, Student Voice is supposed to be included on every regular school board meeting agenda but so far that’s only occurred in four agendas.

NHCS’s Student Voice policy was structured around a parallel policy in Maryland, which enabled students to have a vote on the board — which is allowed under Maryland state law. But in North Carolina no such statute exists, meaning that basing SV around a Maryland policy made it incongruent on arrival. It seems at least some of the board’s current problems lay in the somewhat faulty foundation of the policy.

Rising tensions

In spite of these challenges, SV’s work has continued, and students are now in the process of designing applications for committee assignments and future Student Voice members.

Presenting an update at the June regular meeting, SV members spoke in support of their universal committee application which was to be reviewed later that night.

Member Stephanie Walker encouraged the students.

“I want to say how much I appreciate you guys being the student leaders. I know it’s a big task because it’s new, but you guys are really working hard [...] We would love to have your voice on our committees,” she said.

But Josie Barnhart interjected.

“You’re noting student engagement teams which is a different verbiage than what we use. So it sounds like that policy needs to be updated,” Barnhart said.

It’s unclear what Barnhart was referring to, as “Student engagement team” isclearly established by SV as the dominant structure through which students can be a part of board committees.

Ultimately, Barnhart’s skepticism prevailed and the policy was sent back to committee.

At the subsequent policy meeting on June 26, Committee Chair Josie Barnhart took issue with language around the definition of key terms but specifically, “opportunity gaps,” suggesting language around possible inequity in the school district represented a personal affront to faculty and staff.

“This to me sounds like you all as students are saying that our staff have not been acting with integrity, so I was kind of taken aback by that,” she continued.

Equity issues have become a hornet’s nest for New Hanover County Schools. Angie Kahney, a parent of a former Student Voice member, told WHQR that students were warned against bringing controversial issues, like that of LGBTQ+ student rights, to the board.

Board member Stephanie Kraybill is frustrated, but not surprised.

“That's kind of where we are, you know, a lot of people are tippy toeing and dancing around us as board members now. And to me, that's horrible,” she said.

Kraybill theorized that much of the contention is a result of equity rhetoric seeping into the debate.

“I think that some of our board members are lumping this into the equity discussion […] The biggest fear there is equity. They don't like the students getting together and without them sitting there listening to every word they say, so they are fearful,” she said.

Board staff have also called the aptitude of SV students into question. At a recent meeting Foust said perhaps reading up to 100 pages of policy is asking too much of students — and Barnhart said the students were not capable because of their age.

“I think you guys are too young right now [...] I'm not saying young as an age, I'm saying, as in developmental wise,” Barnhart said.

It’s worth noting that this year, New Hanover County Schools sent eight students to Ivy league schools — institutions that will, no doubt, require students to read many hundreds of pages.

For former Superintendent student advisory council Isaiah Singleton, these comments don't add up — and certainly don't justify major changes to the policy.

Singleton is a class of 2022 graduate of Ashley High School and now a rising sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill.

“To me, that doesn't seem like a good enough reason [to change the policy]. We strategically made our application in a way that allowed us to pick people who possess certain qualities that we were looking for, a diverse background, public speaking skills, and all that,” he said.

Isaiah Singleton (left) with Dr. Kayce Smith (right) presenting at a Board meeting in 2021.
Isaiah Singleton (left) with Dr. Kayce Smith (right) presenting at a Board meeting in 2021.

He told WHQR his time on the superintendent's advisory board, being able to speak directly to the superintendent and other top staff was meaningful.

“It was definitely something that a lot of I feel like a lot of students would have loved to experience. Because … I had a lot of adults listening to me at once, rather than, you know, being a high school student, doesn't really happen a lot,” Singleton said.

“A lack of information, just seems like, in my opinion, a quick response to a solution that might take a little bit of effort,” he continued.

For Singleton, the advisory team, now a part of SV, was a big part of his high school identity. He thinks the adults involved, including Superintendent Foust, meant well — but didn’t fully commit.

“I think that the most important skill for someone on the board to have is just to be able to be comfortable to speak out against what you believe and still maintain that support even in a field of unsupportiveness,” he said. “I do think that [Superintendent Foust] believed in us. And he did listen to us. Right. But that's kind of where it stopped."

Next steps

At the June regular meeting, SV was punted back to the policy committee. But at the June policy committee meeting, no action was taken. Now SV hangs in limbo. Questions of DEI still dominate much of the Board’s policy-based conversations, leading to a contentious atmosphere.

“Everybody is afraid of everybody right now. And they're not certain who's on what team,” Kraybill said. “I'm feeling very sad that there are some people on our board that do not want to hear the student voice. They don't think it's necessary.”

The next Policy Committee meeting will be held August 15, where SV is likely to come up again.

The adult leaders for Student Voice could not be reached for comment.

James has lived in Wilmington since he was two years old and graduated from Eugene Ashley High School in 2022. He has long-held a passion for the city’s many goings-on, politics, and history. James is an avid film buff, reader, Tweeter, and amateur photographer, and you’ll likely see him in downtown Wilmington if you stand outside of Bespoke Coffee long enough. He is currently receiving his undergraduate education from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, and intends to major in Politics and International affairs.