Park City High School junior selected for Utah’s Student Advisory Council
As a student with a visual impairment, Daniel Bernhardt knows how difficult it can be to excel in school when needing special accommodations. He also believes it doesn’t have to be so complicated.
Bernhardt, a junior at Park City High School, is one of 15 students recently selected to the Utah State Board of Education’s new Student Advisory Council. He, like the other members, joined because he wants to help bring about change in Utah’s school system. He wants to see more support and fewer obstacles for students with disabilities.
The council was created after Kate De Groote, a student at Skyline High School, approached Board member Linda Hansen. De Groote had heard of other states with student committees involved in making decisions about education in their respective states. When she told Hansen she wanted to bring the same concept to Utah, Hansen helped her make the council a reality.
Bernhardt heard about the council in September, and he said it was exactly what he was looking for. He said Park City School District is good at providing accommodations to help students with visual impairments, but he met students from other districts who did not receive the same treatment.
Students in Utah with disabilities and individualized education programs to help with their needs do not get enough representation, he said. Joining the council seemed like the perfect way to make sure students in similar situations are heard.
The biggest thing he wants to change is standardized testing, because he said getting accommodations for the exams is excessively difficult.
“I feel like it shouldn’t be, especially because students who have visual impairment already go through a lot,” he said.
Students must apply months in advance and submit several documents to prove they have an impairment, he said.
Being selected as a council member gives him hope that the Board is ready to listen to his concerns and perhaps make a change.
The other student members are also hopeful that change is possible. They each joined because they were passionate about such things as mental health, access to technology, homelessness and school funding. They represent the LGBTQ community, ethnic minorities, rural Utah and even refugees.
The council had its first meeting last week to talk about what issues were most important to the group. Bernhardt said it formed sub-committees around similar topics, such as school safety, representation of race and sexual orientation and updating standardized testing. He said it was inspirational to be surrounded by students who were willing to put in the work to change schools.
“Oftentimes, students don’t feel like they have a voice, so when it’s made apparent that they do, I think that’s pretty powerful,” he said.
And it was promising to see Board members take a hands-off approach during the first meeting, he said. A few were present, but a student chairperson and vice chairperson led the discussion.
“It is often that it is a bunch of older people who choose what happens, but they don’t really have the full story. They don’t really know what’s actually going on inside the schools,” he said.
Hansen said she was a big proponent of the council because students have perspectives no one else has.
Already, she said the Board has learned of barriers to students’ education that it was unaware of.
“I think we will get great insight that we didn’t have before from their perspective of what is holding them back and what is really helping them. I think it will be great for education here in the state,” she said.
The council, which is expected to meet four to six times a year, will be able to make suggestions to the Board. Hansen said she hopes the council continues to stay in place for years to come.