ANNAPOLIS – He successfully lobbied for schools to drop transcript fees, tried to remain out of the school board’s expense account mess and is pulling better than a 4.0.
For Nyron Burke, 18, student member of the Prince George’s County Board of Education, his successes make his many 15-hour days worthwhile.
Burke, a senior at DuVal High School in Lanham, is one of dozens of student leaders in the state helping to make school policy, while juggling schoolwork and extra-curricular activities.
Formal leadership positions, such as student council and community service groups, can help students gain everyday values, including responsibility and honesty, said Nance Lucas, director of the University of Maryland’s James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership.
Those groups are “all great laboratories for developing leadership skills…at a young age,” she said.
Most counties have one or more student board members, and there is one student on the state level. They serve one-year terms and may or may not have full voting rights.
Burke was elected in April by the Prince George’s Regional Association of Student Governments, a group representing all the county’s 47 middle and high schools, and he represents all 134,000 elementary, middle and high school students in the county.
The Prince George’s board allows him partial voting rights, excluding him from collective bargaining, the budget and school closings, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t voice his opinions.
“He presents his views very forthrightly,” said board member James Henderson. “He’s not a potted plant in the deliberations.”
In a week, Burke spends from 20 to 40 hours on board-related work, with the last period of every school day spent in his school-provided office, preparing for the next board meeting or contacting students.
Student school board members like Burke provide the much-needed voice of students.
“We’re all really in this for the students, and it’s easy to forget that if you don’t have a student to remind you,” said board Vice Chairman Catherine A. Smith. “The student member really brings the rank-and-file point of view to discussions.”
Burke considers all angles of problems, and even on issues on which he can’t vote, he “remains very engaged in the conversation,” Smith said. “He doesn’t let the fact that he’s quote ‘only a student’ get in the way.”
Burke pushed for weeks for the removal of a $2 charge students pay for high school transcripts needed for college and scholarship applications.
“The emphasis right now is getting students to go to college,” Burke said, adding it’s expensive, particularly with little fees tacked on. “We should be encouraging them, not slapping them with charges.”
Some guidance counselors opposed the measure saying the 20-year-old policy is necessary to repay the costs of copying and stamps. But, Burke said, that’s what public funds are for.
Last Thursday, the board voted unanimously in favor of the resolution.
It took time for Burke to establish himself in his role as student board member.
When he first started, he felt like a child, he said, not knowing exactly what his job was. But, he carved a niche for himself after talking to board members about the issues, in particular the controversy over the board itself.
School board members were accused last year of using their expense accounts for personal expenses and of overspending.
Burke understood the whole situation was blown out of proportion, Henderson said.
“He had to hear about it and know about it and suffer through it with us,” Smith said. But because he was new, “he didn’t really have a role,” she said.
This session of the General Assembly, Prince George’s delegates made efforts to restructure the school board and failed.
Burke stayed out of the issue because it had nothing to do with student achievement, he said.
After almost one year in office, “I see myself as just another member,” he said. “I’m not a student that happens to be a board member, I’m a board member that just happens to be a student.”
But to do both roles well, he needs some leeway.
He often turns in homework late, and sometimes has to fax it to his teachers. Most weeks, he misses classes for meetings, either for board-related work or for his work with the Governor’s Fatherhood Advisory Council, which holds conferences to address issues of father-family relations. At first it was difficult, but his teachers are accommodating, he said.
“It’s like having a full-time job and going to school,” Burke said.
The long hours exact a price. Burke often doesn’t get to sleep until late at night and wakes up early in the morning, sometimes as early as 4 a.m., said his father, Daniel Burke.
“There are a lot of times where I’m concerned about him not getting enough rest,” said his father, who works as a dry cleaner. “It’s a little tiresome, but he does cope.”
His son doesn’t have too much time for social activities, his father said.
“He’s not the type of kid who goes to movies and stuff like that,” he said, because he has so little free time.
But it’s obvious Burke is not like most students.
His grade point average is 4.17, with extra points because of Advanced Placement classes, and he got a perfect score on the verbal section of his SATs.
He’s been to Ukraine for an exchange program, uses a Palm Pilot to keep himself organized, and he recently won an $80,000 college scholarship from the Project of Excellence Foundation. His college choices included Duke, Georgetown and Princeton. But he picked Georgetown for its international relations program.
He hopes to attend law school, and then pursue a career in government or law.
Burke is also involved with a number of extracurricular activities, including the Mock Trial team, peer mediation, peer mentoring and the Science Club.
“He’s pretty much one of the most serious students I’ve met,” said Cornell Mickens, Student Government Association adviser and one of Burke’s teachers.
“He’s a student who has a plan, and actually follows that plan,” he said. “He just seems to have it all to me.”