Coeur d’Alene senior pushes for student voice in education policy

 

When Lilian Smith starts her senior year at Coeur d’Alene High School this fall, it will be the first time she’s spent four years in one school.

Smith has attended eleven schools and daycares across three states in her 17 years — and she’s experienced the value in each.

“I wouldn’t trade my education for the world. It was kind of crazy, kind of insane,”  Smith said. “There are little pieces of each school I attended that I want to incorporate into one perfect, beautiful school.”

Smith has already started to affect change in education. She started a nonprofit to offer STEM opportunities to low-income youth and is the force behind new student advisory committees to inform both her local Coeur D’Alene School District board and the State Board of Education.

Someday she plans to have impact on a broader scale: Perhaps as the U.S. Secretary of Education.

“I totally see that happening,” said Charlene Babb, a former teacher of Smith’s. “She’s very goal oriented.”

‘An adventurous spirit’

Smith’s patchwork of school experiences wasn’t driven by frequent moves or a military lifestyle. There were various reasons for the school changes, mom Rebecca Smith said, not the least of which was Lilian’s curiosity. 

When Lilian was in elementary school, her family moved from Hayden, a few miles down  the road to Coeur d’Alene. Rebecca told Lilian she could stay at Hayden Meadows Elementary, but Lilian Smith decided to make the jump to Sorensen Magnet school instead.

After attending Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy for middle school, Smith decided she wanted the “big public American high school opportunity,” and left for Coeur d’Alene High instead of staying at the top-rated charter.

“I think she just has an adventurous spirit,” Rebecca Smith said.

At Coeur d’Alene High Smith has stacked up so many extracurriculars it will be a chore to remember them all for her college applications.

Smith was the vice president of her junior class, part of the Coeur d’Alene Press Student Advisory Council, a cross-country runner, on the debate team and co-founder of a nonprofit to name a few. She won a 2020 Idaho’s Brightest Star award for her philanthropy and a  “spirit of community” award from prudential bank.

She also works at Abi’s Ice Cream in downtown Coeur d’Alene and has interned with Johns Hopkins University during the summers. 

Rebecca jokes with Lilian that she might be the only  teenager who still considers it a punishment to go to her room. She thrives on social interaction.

“I cannot sit in my room for that long, I have to interact with people,” Lilian Smith  said. “It was kind of second nature for me to go to all of these activities.”

Student activism

Smith and her younger sister co-founded Coeur d’Alene nonprofit Growing the STEM in 2017, as a way to expand science and math opportunities for underserved students in the community.

The nonprofit  brought youth math competition Math is Cool to nine schools in the district, started a math peer-tutoring program at eight elementary schools and is piloting a new STEM club.

Smith participated on a competitive math team at Coeur d’Alene’s Sorensen Elementary. As she got older, she didn’t think it was fair that other students didn’t have the same opportunity. Growing the STEM helped build those programs at Coeur d’Alene’s Title I elementary schools, which serve a high number of low-income students. Smith coaches two of the teams herself.

“It’s super important that every child who goes into public education gets the same opportunities, and the same quality education, so that if they want  to dig deep they can,” Smith said. “So it’s not decided for them at a young age.” 

Babb, Smith’s Math is Cool coach at Sorensen, says the teen has always had an enthusiasm for learning. Now that Babb watches Smith coach her own team, she can see Smith’s enthusiasm for teaching too. Smith gets to know the students, Babb said, and in doing so helps build the trust they need to take academic risks.

“She kind of gives them the courage to try new things, and fail, and then succeed — and be comfortable with all of it,” Babb said.

Smith calls herself a “big picture” person. She wants to invest her time in efforts that will bring about the most good. She’s decided education is the way to go.

“You’re not just changing a few people’s lives. You’re changing all the kids that you’ve touched in the classroom,” Smith said.

Smith, second from the left, poses with students mentored through Growing the STEM.

Big ideas for the future of education

The summer before her junior year, Smith stood in front of the Coeur d’Alene school board and suggested they incorporate a student perspective into their decisions.

She’d been inspired by a debacle over the districts’ cell-phone policy and an intensive audit into the district’s curriculum. In both situations, Smith thought student’s perspectives should be elevated — after all, she said, “they’re the ones the education is for.”

The idea gained traction. This fall, the Coeur d’Alene School Board plans to adopt a student advisory group to help inform trustee’s decisions, district spokesperson Scott Maben said.

Smith didn’t stop at home. She pitched the idea to state leaders, meeting with State Board of Education president Debbie Critchfield, speaking with the Lieutenant Governor and penning an Op Ed  asking the governor to use his executive powers to establish a student advisory council to the State Board of Education.

It paid off. Critchfield said a member of the state board’s executive team will meet twice a year with a group of K-12 students organized by the Idaho Association of Student Councils. She called Smith a “driving force” in making that happen.

“To have a mechanism to be able to hear directly from the students, I think that’s a benefit and a value to the work we do,” Critchfield said.

Smith sees this as a starting point for her future in education.

She plans to study chemistry and education policy in college, then work for a time as a chemistry teacher. Afterward, she’d like to earn an advanced degree in education, become the superintendent of a large school district — like Baltimore or Chicago, she says — and eventually consider the dream job: U.S. Secretary of Education.

If she earned that top role, Smith says she’d encourage more uniformity between education funding state to state, so no student got short-changed on per-pupil spending just because of where they were born. She’d increase funding and attention for special education and behavioral health. And she’s interested in the idea of compassion seminars for teachers.

She wants to remind teachers that their job isn’t only about helping kids get good grades: it’s about helping students develop as people.

When she’s in the classroom, Smith likes to think her highest satisfaction won’t be helping a kid pass a test. She’ll feel successful if she can help students discover what they’re passionate about, and maybe help spark an interest that will shape the rest of their lives.

“There are so many kids looking to make a difference,” Smith said.  “If you give them those opportunities and encourage them to pursue a student advisory council, or pursue a nonprofit or something like that, it just makes our world so much better.”

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