Two new student reps join Philly school board as nonvoting members

Armando Ortez, a rising senior at Northeast, and Rebecca Allen, a rising junior at Central, will begin serving as Student Board Reps for the 2021-22 school year. (Philadelphia Board of Education)

Armando Ortez, a rising senior at Northeast, and Rebecca Allen, a rising junior at Central, will begin serving as Student Board Reps for the 2021-22 school year. (Philadelphia Board of Education)

Philadelphia’s Board of Education has two new student representatives joining its ranks: Rebecca Allen, a rising junior at Central High School, and Armando Ortez, a rising senior at Northeast High School.

They’re joining on the heels of a tumultuous school year.

And in his remarks welcoming them to the board Thursday — which he called the “the best thing” he did all day — Mayor Jim Kenney noted that they’ll be starting their board work as the district prepares for yet another major shift: navigating in-person classes for the first time in many months.

“Across the city, our students’ lives have been radically changed by the pandemic and the challenges it created,” he said. “The student representatives will ensure that their peers’ voices are heard as we move forward, and as we build a better future for all of our children.”

As a student at Central, Allen co-founded the group UNHEARD — Uprooting Negligence by Habituating Equity and Anti-Racism through Real Discussions — which holds discussions and workshops for students. She’s also a member of the restorative justice group NEXUS, volunteers at Abundant Harvest House of Prayer Food Pantry, and works on student voter registration drives.

She gave an “extra special shoutout” to the Philly Black Students’ Alliance.

“Without them I would not have even applied for this position,” she said.

Ortez, a first-generation Honduran American, is already enrolled and taking courses at the Community College of Philadelphia. He’s on the track and lacrosse teams, and was involved in a University of Pennsylvania engineering enrichment program for high school students.

He said he’s hoping to use his position on the board to advocate for immigrant students, and said he’s “excited for the year ahead.”

Per Philadelphia’s charter, student representatives have nonvoting positions on the board — a state of affairs that caused conflicts last year between the then-representatives and student leaders.

In the midst of the pandemic and remote learning throughout Philly’s public schools, student leaders had pushed for their representatives to have a more official say in district policy. At a Dec. 2020 board meeting, then-Central High School Senior Youma Diabira complained that students “don’t want a high chair at the table, we want a vote,” and said it was “frustrating that the adults on the board are using the student representatives as mouthpieces.”

Last year’s student representatives on the board, Keylisha Diaz and Toluwanimi Olaleye, said they disagreed, arguing that they needed to focus on advocating for mental health resources for students, not for changing the city charter to get a vote.

Philly School District Superintendent William Hite noted he’d done final interviews with both Allen and Ortez, and was impressed by their “commitment to improving academic and social and emotional experiences” for students.

“Although our students are nonvoting representatives, their voices are extremely important,” he said. “We look forward to their engagement over the next year.”

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