The Kentucky Department of Education announced Oct. 2 that Solyana Mesfin of Louisville was selected as the first active public school student in the Commonwealth to hold a seat on the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE).
Mesfin, a junior at Eastern High School in Jefferson County, was appointed to a two-year term as a non-voting member on Oct. 1 and will represent her fellow students throughout Kentucky. As an ex-officio member on the KBE, she will not vote on official matters, but will provide input on policy decisions that affect Kentucky’s public schools.
“We are proud to offer this exciting student leadership position and to join the many states across the country that have student representatives on their state boards of education,” said Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass. “Kentucky’s students are who our system is designed for and they bring such a valuable voice, as they often bring light to problems and offer solutions that simply don’t occur to adults. This is such an important and timely step as Kentucky moves forward in its commitment to student engagement and empowerment statewide.”
Mesfin, 16, is a second-year member of KDE’s Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council (SAC), where she works alongside other student members to advise the commissioner of education and the KDE leadership team on issues relevant to high school students.
She was selected as the student representative on the KBE through her role on the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council, as eligibility for the position was open to council members who are a sophomore or junior in good standing at the time of their appointment to the KBE.
“I want to give a student perspective in hopes of impacting policies for the better,” Mesfin said. “Being a student member on the Kentucky Board of Education will mean much more than myself and title, it will mean giving a voice for students.”
Nine students from the advisory council successfully completed the application procedure and met all the criteria for consideration, including submitting parent and school support statements. Mesfin’s name was randomly selected by a drawing and her name was forwarded to the governor’s office for approval and issuance of a commission to serve on the KBE.
“The Kentucky Board of Education welcoming its first student member is a great step forward for education in the commonwealth,” said Gov. Andy Beshear. “Having a student member gives the board new insight into how their plans and policies impact our students in a real and meaningful way. I applaud the board and the Kentucky Department of Education for taking this step forward.”
Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, who sits on the KBE as an ex officio member due to her position as secretary of the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, said she welcomes a new perspective on the KBE.
“I’ve met with members of the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council and I was very impressed with their insight and their dedication to improving education for all of Kentucky’s public school students,” Coleman said. “I think Solyana will be a great addition to the state board and I look forward to working with her.”
According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, Kentucky joins a group of 20 states and the District of Columbia, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands that have included a student member. Twenty-eight states have formal structures for including student voice, such as through student advisory councils.
Mental health, especially in rural areas that may lack a variety of resources, is the top issue facing Kentucky students, Mesfin said.
When Mesfin was selected to serve on the SAC, she said she hoped to advocate for and shed light on concerns raised by her peers in Jefferson County. Now, she is looking to take the values she learned there and amplify them to be a leader for the state, she said.
“I will provide my open ears to any students I come across and will do everything in my power to allow their voices to be heard within the board,” said Mesfin. “The advantage of being a student is that it allows me to recognize how valid our input is and, in that sense, will allow me to prioritize the words of these emerging leaders.”
Mesfin noted the importance of student voices. Not only does participation on the SAC have an impact on issues affecting students, it allows those students to develop important skills and emerge as leaders, she said.
At Eastern High, Mesfin is in the Family and Consumer Management career pathway. Within the school, she has engaged in many conversations with her peers on topics ranging from racial bias and equity to distinctions between upper and lower classmen.
“I am eager to take on this role because I’ve seen and heard some of the struggles and hardships of my peers. I have also seen and heard their successes and what they think is beneficial,” she said. “This position will allow me to bring up impactful information to the board, so together we can work to improve the overall educational experience for all students across Kentucky.”
“My biggest desire is to improve something so valuable that is most of the time taken for granted by many.”
Mesfin was born in Virginia to Almaz G. Hagos and Mesfin G. Nigussie, both immigrants from Ethiopia. She has two younger brothers, Samuel, a freshman at the J Graham Brown School, and Heyab, an 8th-grader at Crosby Middle School.
When she was 11, Mesfin moved to Ethiopia for middle school and attended Greek Community School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a school based on the Cambridge School system and curriculum.
“After my middle school years, my mother, two brothers and I moved to Louisville because of our extended family and the better education provided,” she said. “We found a community in Louisville and the educational advantages were essential for me emerging into high school and creating a foundation for my future. My father remains in Ethiopia for his job.”
KBE Chair Lu Young said she is eager to begin working with Mesfin.
“I am delighted to welcome Solyana as the first-ever student member of the Kentucky Board of Education,” she said. “Ensuring that a student has a seat at the table as we make critical decisions for public schools is the right thing to do and hearing from Solyana, amplifying the voices of her peers, will only make those decisions more powerful and more relevant.”
Mesfin is a member of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, the Muhammad Ali Center Council of Students, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Louisville Youth Advisory Council and the National Honor Society. Mesfin also is secretary for the Black Student Union, vice president of finance for FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders of America), an academic tutor at Hite Elementary school, a Sources of Strength facilitator, a Science Olympiad competitor and is an honorary volunteer for the Tigray Community of Kentucky (Ethiopian Community Center).
Mesfin will begin her role with the KBE at the board’s Oct. 7 meeting.
Her two-year term will expire on June 30, 2022.