Photo courtesy of Montgomery County Public Schools
A racial justice crisis, a pandemic that has taken half a million lives, a collective deterioration of mental healthㅡ2020 delivered hurdle after hurdle to the citizens of the United States. The silent sufferers of this year, however, were the young people and students forced into an online learning environment as they watched their country fall apart at the seams. Nonetheless, with a new year and new shared perseverance, we have begun to rebuild and repair the problems that the previous year exposed.
While much action is being taken on a national and state level, many are unaware of the damage inflicted at the local stage. Though Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has fared better than other school districts in the country, students still struggle with the effects of the pandemic that officials failed to properly address. However, there remains an outlet for MCPS students to express their beliefs when it comes to local issues that directly affect them: the annually elected Student Member of the Board (SMOB).
On April 23, MCPS students will participate in the most consequential SMOB election since the position was established. The next SMOB will have to address massive disparities that exist within our education system, mental health issues and a full return to schools post-COVID, among several other matters. After interviewing finalists Hana O’Looney-Goto and Henry Kaye, both juniors from Richard Montgomery High School, the Tide Editorial Board has chosen to endorse O’Looney for the 2021 MCPS SMOB election.
There has not been a better candidate for the SMOB position in MCPS’s recent history. In place of the unrealistic goals and empty promises of previous contenders, O’Looney offers a firm stance and achievable proposals on virtually every issue that has plagued MCPS students. She also has the experience and reliability we need to navigate through these tumultuous times, taking a leading role in student government and advocacy for the past five years. Through all of her efforts, O’Looney has proven her genuine commitment to all MCPS students and shown the compassion that many politicians often lack.
First entering student government as an alternate class delegate at her middle school, O’Looney quickly discovered her passion for advocacy and the need for dedicated student leaders. Observing problems regarding attendance, staff representation and the curriculum at her school, she became determined to make a difference at a higher level. She has served both as president of the Montgomery County Junior Council and vice president of the Montgomery County Regional SGA, gaining valuable experience in leadership and policy while developing connections that will ensure a productive and successful SMOB term.
Beyond developing her own skillset, O’Looney made tangible and effective changes during her time in both positions. Over this past year, she has implemented “Task Forces” relating to education equity, cultural awareness, mental health and other issues. These groups allow students not involved in county-wide SGA to provide their insight on critical MCPS policy.
O’Looney has also shown her commitment and capacity to make substantial change through her unyielding push to bring free menstrual hygiene products to all schools in MCPS. “I remember the first time I ever spoke to the Board about it, it was in January of 2020, and since then, you know, I had to keep bringing the issue back up to the Board of Education, keep bringing it to Central offices,” O’Looney said. After a tough, multi-year process of calling and emailing MCPS staff and Board members, a free menstrual hygiene resolution was passed by a unanimous vote in December 2020 and will be in full effect around 2025.
Mental health has been one of the most challenging issues for students this past year. There has been both an exacerbation of preexisting anxiety and depression as well as an increase in the number of students battling these illnesses due to the pandemic. Every election, past SMOB candidates make promises to increase funding for counseling departments and promote mental health awareness, but these token promises never manifest themselves into concrete policies after election.
Unlike former candidates, however, O’Looney has outlined a detailed and feasible plan that will actually improve student mental health rather than check off a box on a campaign list. She has offered actual means to pay for hiring more counselors and psychologists by proposing we divert funding from our School Resource Officer program. Additionally, she plans to include at least three “mental health days” per semester and more relaxed assignment timetables to alleviate school pressures.
O’Looney also plans on improving the learning experience for all students through a diversification of the curriculum and staff body. “I look back at the 12 years I’ve spent in this system and I have had four black teachers, one Hispanic teacher and one Asian teacher,” O’Looney said. Under the idea that “teachers should look like us,” she intends to thoroughly review the hiring processes of MCPS and attempt to shift staff demographics to reflect that of the student body. She also hopes to expand the curriculum to be more inclusive of the histories of various ethnicities and the LGBTQ community.
Additionally, O’Looney acknowledges the massive disparities that exist in MCPS education as a result of the socioeconomic gradients within the county. She said, “I don’t believe that your zip code, school, background, language, or identity should determine the educational opportunities that you have access to.” To rectify these opportunity gaps, she plans to implement free prep classes to help all students prepare for magnet and standardized tests, providing students an even playing field.
However, O’Looney ultimately wants to be remembered as a SMOB who “shared her seat” and used her role as a “bridge” between herself and the entire student body. If chosen as our next SMOB, she looks forward to fully bringing back the monthly “SMOB Minute,” maintaining monthly newsletters and keeping an active social media presence on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and Snapchat. “I also really want to diversify my methods of communication and commit to translating everything I put out there into multiple languages,” O’Looney said.
This is not an election to take lightly. Not only must the next SMOB steer MCPS out of the many crises of 2020, but they also must help select the next superintendent, establishing the path of the school district for the next many years. In the past, these elections have been nothing but a popularity contest disguised as student government and leadership. This is the first golden opportunity that MCPS students have at electing a SMOB that will relentlessly fight to address and repair aspects of our school system that have been ignored for far too long.
With just a glance at her website, O’Looney proves that she has analyzed MCPS inside and out and has the necessary experience and connections to maximize her term. Beyond all of this, when speaking with her or listening to a speech, one realizes she possesses a raw passion to truly make a difference. “At the end of the day, I’m not just throwing empty promises out into the world. I’m making promises that are backed up by a real record of action and a real history and commitment to change. And that commitment is the same commitment you will see from me if and when I’m elected.”