October 25, 2008
School presidency teaches lesson of leadership
Student Council presidents fill the role of organizer, motivator and voice of the students
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Homer High School Student Council President Avery Young, foreground, helps students brainstorm ideas Thursday during a meeting.
Avery Young leaned against his lectern, offering opinions to 20 Homer High School students Thursday as they discussed a December dance and Nov. 4 mock presidential election.
From the front of advisor Eric Hatch’s classroom, Young patiently listened to the Student Council that he leads as president. The council members wondered how they would obtain posters from local party headquarters and how their mock election would be run. Then he broke them into groups.
A senior, Young was elected by the student body last spring in a contentious race that he says made him focus on why he wanted the job, and forced him to really reach out to students. He thought being president would help in many ways. He sees his role as organizer, motivator and, if necessary, student voice to Principal Fred Farah and other adults.
Student council presidents have served these purposes for decades in American schools. Most schools still have the position despite cynicism among some students who say the president has little power or purpose.
Council presidents have included actors Charlton Heston and Bruce Willis, comedian Don Rickles, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, presidential advisors Terry McAuliffe (Bishop Ludden High School) and Karl Rove, and Skaneateles lawyer, author and former pro football player Tim Green (Liverpool).
Former President Richard Nixon lost his bid for school president in Whittier, Calif. Bill Clinton was not allowed to run for president in Hope, Ark., because his principal had a point system that kept things equal and he had too many points, according to biographer David Maraniss. Clinton could run only for senior class secretary (he lost).
In the 1960s and 1970s, sometimes the president led the fight for change in school policy, as youths rebelled.
The traditional structure of elected homeroom representatives has largely given way to volunteers, which council advisors say is fine as some elected members did not want the office. The volunteer structure is used at Cortland, Homer and McGraw high schools.
Young’s council is all in the same homeroom. Hatch said it’s a strong group, compared to years when five students have belonged. Homer’s council has caused change in the past, as it did several years ago, convincing the teachers to approve a study hall for students who work hard but are not as highly ranked as the ones in “honor study hall.”
At McGraw Central, students run as a ticket of president and vice president, then the president chooses the other officers. This year’s president, senior Alan Smith, was not an officer last year but ran for president because he felt he could represent all students.
“I’m friends with everybody in the school,” Smith said. “Anybody can come to me with problems.”
He said he listens even to seventh- and eighth-graders, considering them the school’s future. His goals include buying a new eagle mascot costume, as the current one “is old and kind of nasty inside.”
At Cortland High School, senior Cody Smith’s council is composed of 100 volunteers divided into seven committees. Smith was not an officer last year but chaired the service committee. He is proud of a Guitar Hero competition that raised money for students last year.
All three presidents said the office helps them improve their public speaking skills and overall leadership skills, especially in getting students to work together. Alan Smith said it’s not for shy people.
Cody Smith said he meets with Executive Principal Greg Santoro while planning events but not so much to discuss complaints, as “students are pretty direct with the principal when they don’t like something.”
This is a departure from the 1970s, when students rebelling against the Vietnam War and society’s strict rules sometimes chose presidents who would fight for them. Such was the case with Cortland High School’s 1970-71 president, Colin Cummins.
With shoulder-length hair that was a rarity at his school, Cummins had been raised to follow his beliefs and had marched against the war. He had never been involved in Student Council. His campaign platform promised opposition to the council president’s leading the Pledge of Allegiance for every school day and school assembly.
“I was goofing on the status quo, jock mentality, social structure of status,” Cummins said. “I didn’t think the pledge really rang true. It was a matter of conscience. I guess the students decided to goof on the status quo, too.”
Cummins and Principal John Gee had heated discussions about school policies such as dress code. Otherwise, he said, the council handled the usual business, such as a canned food drive and dances.
Students circulated a petition that Cummins be impeached, but the council voted that leading the pledge was not actually one of its president’s duties. Vice President Frank Fedele led the pledge after that.
Video Club members lead the pledge now at the high school.
“I am glad I was president,” said Cummins, who lives in McGraw and is a supervisor for Cortland County Child Protective Services. “I wasn’t real involved in school. I learned about reaching out to people. I think John Gee and I had a mutual respect by the end of the year, even if we didn’t like each other’s political outlooks.”
Cortland resident Marianne Bertini was Student Council president at Skaneateles High School in 1978-79.
“I wanted to be a leader,” she said. “My father, Fulvio, was a Common Council member, and I saw how he campaigned. I learned the value of asking people to vote for you. I actually saw that in sixth grade, when I ran for class president and my running mate didn’t vote for me, she voted for my opponent because he was cute.”
Bertini said her chief role was “to make it better for kids in school.” Her council managed the school store, got the administration to open an art room during lunch, scheduled buses for events —“important for kids who can’t drive” — and negotiated for student parking spaces.
After high school, some council presidents remain leaders, some have had enough of it and some find other venues for their abilities.
Cummins served on the McGraw Board of Education, including terms as vice president and president. He says he respects Gee even more now, after seeing how school administrators do their work.
Bertini ran unsuccessfully for Common Council but serves as president of the 1890 House Museum board of directors.
“In high school, you don’t have to tell people no very much, and you don’t have to fire people,” she said. “The whole kind of leadership is different in the world after school.”
Young plans to enter graphic design, so other than managing a department, he doubts he will continue in politics. His older brother, Forrest, was student president last year and is continuing in politics at American University.
As the school year gets going, Young has discovered that he is the students’ voice.
Earlier this week, two sophomore girls approached him in the hall to complain that prices were too high in the food vending machines. The three of them spotted Farah and asked him about the issue.
“It was just a quick conversation on the spot,” Young said. “He told them to talk to the cafeteria manager. But, yes, I would meet with him if I needed to.”
To read this article and more, pick up today's Cortland Standard
Click here to subscribe