Each year there are two young people who offer student perspective on the Helena School Board.
This year those representatives are Emily Grinsell, a junior at Capital High, and Clare Menahan, a senior at Helena High.
“Each year it’s always interesting to see what the new representatives bring and this year again we have excellent reps making contributions,” trustee Michael O’Neil said. “We like to think we were students once, but it’s been a long time so they keep us grounded on what’s going on in the schools today.”
Grinsell said she wanted to become a school board representative because it’s a great way to get involved and be informed in her school system.
“I knew when I put in my application for my position that it would be a great learning experience and so far it has proven to be one,” she said. “I also really wanted to try and make a difference in my school and to try and improve what needs improvement for my fellow students.”
Grinsell is a captain on the debate team, volunteers two days a week in an elementary classroom, coaches soccer and serves on the Catholic Youth Coalition Board.
“Being involved with outside activities makes my school experience much more enjoyable,” she said. “With the courses I chose to take this year, it can be a bit stressful at times but being involved in these other activities, especially the ones with children, really helps me relax and just have fun doing something good. I feel that they also improve my school work because I know if I don’t maintain good grades I wouldn’t be able to do these other wonderful things.”
Grinsell says sometimes high school lacks a general sense of camaraderie.
“I feel that at times the atmosphere in high school can be really cliquey and that makes it hard for some to fit in which is unfortunate, and I know from experience that it is no fun being on the outside looking in,” she said.
The graduation rate is something that could definitely be improved in Montana, Grinsell said.
“I don’t think we should ignore the fact that Montana’s high school graduation rate is one of the best in the country,” she said. “I think that some factors that could contribute to its current rate would be a lack of motivation among some students and special or personal circumstances. So I think the best way to improve it is to show kids the importance of a high school diploma and the benefits of it in the long term. I think that if we get students motivated about school and their future prospects we can greatly improve the graduation rate in Montana.”
After high school, Grinsell plans on going to college to pursue a degree in either secondary education or nursing.
“I’ve already started looking at colleges and it’s my dream to get accepted into Gonzaga,” she said. “I’m also looking at Montana State and a couple of other private and state schools, but I guess only time will tell as far as college goes.”
Menahan said she wanted to serve as a student representative on the board to make a difference and be better informed.
“I needed a way to channel my interests and I wanted to branch out from the high school,” she said.
Menahan said so much of high school is just talking and students are constantly asking, “What can you do for me, how can you make my life easier?”
“So it’s incredibly fulfilling to be able to give back for a change,” she said. “Volunteering/helping others has taught me a lot about myself and what is important in life. It gives me a sense of worth to be able to give to my fellow classmates and community members.”
Menahan runs cross-country for the Bengals, is treasurer/secretary for the Bio Club, is involved in student council and is a member of the National Honor Society.
Outside of school, she takes violin lessons, is involved in Grandstreet Theatre as both a musician and an actress and is the student representative for Helena Education Foundation. She is a member of Planned Parenthood’s Teen Advisory Council and the student representative for Planned Parenthood of Montana.
“I have a renewed appreciation for the amount of time that is necessary to make changes within the school system,” she said. “I am reminded of how important having an education is and of how lucky I am to have access to a free public education. That said, there are certainly problems within the system that need to be addressed, and being on the board has made me hyperaware of those problems and of my role in helping to solve them.”
Like Grinsell, Menahan says high school lacks a sense of community.
“I think Helena High has certainly made an effort in the last several years, but I still see plenty of kids struggling to fit in,” she said. “Our schools need to do a better job of encouraging students to express their opinions, because they are valuable. Schools should be the center of a community, fostering relationships between students, teachers and community members.”
Menahan says parents and students don’t make graduation a priority and that’s contributing to the poor graduation rate.
“It’s not just a fault of the schools,” she said. “Better communication between students, parents and administrators/teachers. When teachers care, when parents care, and when other students care, graduation rates will go up. At Helena High, incoming freshmen sign a pledge to graduate, and yet there is no follow-up to make sure students are on track and making good decisions.”
After graduating, Menahan says she intends to be involved in whatever community she ends up living in.
“I’m very interested in journalism, law, politics, the humanities and environmental issues right now, and, ideally, I’d like to work for Ira Glass as a journalist for ‘This American Life.’ ”
O’Neil says all the student representatives, including Grinsell and Menahan, have been outstanding.
“They bring high quality insights and expertise to the table,” he said. “In the past, their views have really made a difference and shaped the direction in a policy because of their input.”