This year the CMS Board of Education has made critical decisions about educating 147,000 students during a pandemic. Through it all, a 17-year-old has kept them on their toes.
If you’ve watched any of the hours-long board meetings recently, you’ve heard from Ardrey Kell senior Gabe Schuhl. He’s developed a sort of fan following.
Schuhl is the CMS Board of Education student advisor. His term started in January and ends in a couple of weeks.
A critical perspective: The board created the position to give students a voice in high-level decisions that affect them. To its credit, Schuhl says, CMS is one of the few large, urban school districts with a student seat on the board. While the student advisor doesn’t have voting power, he does add a critical perspective and attends all board meetings.
“I think generally, the ideas that I’ve presented and the points of reflection that I’ve given the board have been somewhat influential in determining policy,” Schuhl said of whether he feels the board hears him. “I say that as a testament to the fact that CMS is listening to dissenting voices just by way of listening to the student advisor. I think that’s a positive step even if there’s always more to be done.”
Schuhl’s main criticism of the board centers around listening to student and teacher concerns, especially those related to coronavirus. For example when the board voted to delay the start of in-person classes for middle schools, the main reason for the delay was a bus driver shortage. But Schuhl says the decision should’ve been based on the teachers and students who were concerned about going back to in-person classes.
Schuhl says it can be intimidating to push back against the policies and ideas of board members that are decades older than he is. But you’d never know based on the level of poise and confidence with which he speaks.
“It’s finding that balance between presenting new ideas that come with (the student) experience and then learning from people who know a lot more about education,” Schuhl said.
The comment sections of the board meetings, which are live streamed on Facebook, can get pretty heated, and so can the meetings themselves. But there is consensus in one area: Everyone loves Gabe.
During a December 8 board meeting, which was especially polarizing and five-and-a-half hours long, the board was deciding whether or not to move the majority of K-12 students to virtual learning. [Go deeper]
“We always seem to dichotomize these students’ and teachers’ and parents’ fears,” Schuhl said during the meeting about those who had concerns about returning to in-person learning.
“All of the guidance that comes from the national, state, and county level to open schools … comes with the specific stipulation of limiting community spread. Dr. Fauci’s statements came with the stipulation of closing bars first — something we have not done.”
And with that comment, just like most other board meetings, once the 17-year-old started speaking the Gabe Schuhl fan club piped up in the comments.
“Gabe with the actual facts!” one commenter said. “GABE!!! Here we go with some intelligent questions!!” said another. “Preach, Gabe!!!!” one commenter cheered. “Why is Gabe the only adult here?” another asked.
A focus on the issues: Schuhl says he appreciates all of the support. And he hopes the same will be extended to the next student advisor, Breana Fowler, a student at North Meck who’ll take Gabe’s spot come January.
“I wish a lot of times that support was less directed towards me specifically, and directed towards a lot of the things I might be saying, or the policies we’re talking about,” he said. “I hope that they reciprocate that towards any student who offers criticism or ways to move forward in education.”
Schuhl answers a lot of questions like this. Taking the focus off himself and redirecting the spotlight onto the issues. He says his passion for critical issues — equity in education, resourcing low-income schools, and ensuring PTAs and booster clubs don’t have too much influence — has only grown over the last year.
What’s next: The high school senior is waiting on college acceptance letters. He’s interested in psychology and politics. When thinking about a future career, he doesn’t want a regular office job. He hopes to land at a civil rights nonprofit, or something like that.
And when I asked him whether one day we’d be addressing him as Senator or President Schuhl, he said it was a possibility.
“Facebook (commenters) might see that. I’m not sure. I think I definitely do have an interest in politics. So I think going forward, that might be something that would interest me.”
Right now Schuhl’s interests are reading (most recently The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan) and playing the saxophone — he’s big into jazz.
Although his term as student advisor is almost over, he still has a semester of high school left.
It’s unclear whether he’ll be able to salvage any of the senior year traditions he’s missed because of the pandemic.
“I’m in no way happy about ruining my senior year,” he said of supporting virtual learning. “My logic is that my concerns aren’t as important as someone’s grandparent or a teacher’s life that might be threatened by the pandemic.”
During his last regular board meeting, members ended the session with a farewell to Gabe.
A common theme through these goodbyes was board members expressing gratitude for Schuhl’s constructive criticism and engagement. Dr. Ruby Jones, who represents District 3, summed it up well.
“There’s a saying, ‘Wisdom is only found in truth,'” she said. “And you, Gabe, have shared enough truths during your time on this board that I can say you are wise beyond your years.”
Subscribe: Join 55,277 smart Charlotteans and subscribe to our daily newsletter here.