Members of the County Student Advisory Council lead a conversation during an Albemarle School Board work session

Thirty high school students are filing into a third-floor conference room of the Albemarle County Office Building.

They’re popping sodas, tearing open candy bar wrappers, and scarfing down their lunches while bemoaning the PSAT. One student is dressed as a Dalmatian for her school’s spirit week.

But quickly the teenagers who comprise the County Student Advisory Council morph into policy wonks who want to compare student organization procedures across schools.

After a dialogue that branches off and touches on safety measures and the role clubs play in student culture at Albemarle’s high schools, someone cracks a joke, and the conference room is full of teenagers again.

“That’s actually the joy of being a secondary-level teacher,” Jennifer Sublette, Albemarle’s lead coach and facilitator of social studies, and CSAC advisor, said. “That’s always the fun roller coaster of working with students, and allowing them space, I think, to do both.”

In addition to attending the School Board’s work sessions to share student input, the CSAC meets monthly to share concerns, ask questions, and learn.

These meetings, Sublette says, are as important to the students as the Board meetings, because the CSAC can have more thorough dialogue in a meeting devoted to a single issue, than if a few students were to give three minutes of public comment at a Board meeting.

“One of the big topics that’s been evolving has been the development and offering of virtual courses,” Sublette said, noting that the Council engaged Albemarle Assistant Superintendent Billy Haun about the issue from the beginning.

“Then he and I went to the different high schools, and met with different student groups to get input and start planning,” Sublette said. “So they’re able to bring up ideas, bring up different perspectives, and it helps us.”

And the student leaders think the experience is helping them too.

Monticello High School senior Mattie Morris said she’s learning about how school systems work.

“I don’t become frustrated by issues that happen during school because I have learned all of the regulations and boards that are constantly working for them,” Morris said. “CSAC has also given me the opportunity to share my opinions and ideas with the local School Board so that they can have an inside look into student life.”  

Western Albemarle High School senior John Mark Mastakas said the CSAC meetings have improved the group’s relationship with the School Board, and that the Council’s input now carries more weight.

Phoebe DeVito, a WAHS sophomore, said her time with the CSAC has helped her grow in confidence and as a critical thinker.

“In the beginning I was very shy and just didn’t talk,” DeVito said. “But the first time I formed an opinion and spoke, I think that it really helped me grow, because now I can listen to what others are saying, take in what they’re saying, and form my own opinions about it.”

This, Sublette said, is the takeaway she wants for all of the group’s members, especially as they dive into how Albemarle calculates GPA, which the Council has targeted as its next area of exploration.  

“That, for me, is such an important process for any student or adult to do with any complex topic,” Sublette said. “The GPA issue in and of itself is very interesting to them and to us, but at the same time it’s just one example of a thought process I would hope student leaders would go through.”

There is no shortage of GPA-related issues individual students are mulling leading into their next CSAC meeting.

“Students who are taking ‘easier’ classes and are getting good grades could be ranked higher than students challenging themselves and taking more difficult classes and earning average grades,” Morris said.

“Gym and electives also strongly effect a student’s GPA by the way they are weighted,” Morris added, “causing students to turn away from the more enjoyable classes to benefit their transcripts.” 

Danny O’Dea, a WAHS senior, said that how Albemarle weights grades, and thus calculates GPA, dictates his course selection to an extent, and that he’s hopeful the CSAC will be able to offer input to school officials.

Regardless of the direction the GPA conversation takes, Mastakas is pleased with the CSAC’s development.

“We’re pushing our way into the system,” Mastakas said. “And I want it to get to the point where we don’t have to push anymore, where we can just become part of that system and we can have our voices heard clearly and have our opinions be respected.”