- Saja Almogalli
Three recent Burlington High School grads have won seats on the city's 12-member school board, adding youth to a body that traditionally has been the domain of much older people.
Aquilas Lokossou, Faizo Hassan and Saja Almogalli, each 21 years old and a person of color, will represent wards 1, 2 and 8 respectively. They take office on April 5.
None of them fits the typical school board member profile. A 2018 survey conducted by the National School Boards Association found that the median age of school board members across the U.S. was 59. And in a 2020 EdWeek Research Center survey of school board members, 81 percent said they had no Black colleagues and 86 percent said they had no Latino colleagues.
The board members-elect — and those who know them — say their backgrounds and recent experiences as students in Burlington schools will help bring a fresh perspective to the board.
"It's nice to have a lot of different voices," said Lokossou, who won election unopposed. He's a senior majoring in psychology at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. "I think that having a wide range of age groups and cultural backgrounds is just important for good collaboration and good work." Lokossou lives in Plattsburgh but plans to return to Burlington after he graduates this spring. Until then, he said, he'll attend board meetings virtually.
Hassan said she is looking forward to connecting with students and making the school district "a better place for kids who haven't been heard."
As a young person of color, she said, "I feel like I might have some different opinions than other people." Hassan, who also ran unopposed, said she hopes to be a board member with whom students are comfortable discussing their concerns.
Making Burlington schools welcoming and engaging for all students has been a top priority for administrators. In recent years, the district, like the city, declared racism a public health emergency and started programs including a Summer Racial Justice Academy, where students of color learned leadership skills, and a Black Parents Advocacy Group formed to respond to incidents of racism. The district wants faculty and staff to "mirror" the diverse student population. But they still have a long way to go on that front.
Less than 6 percent of teachers and principals in the district are people of color, compared to 39 percent of students, according to the district's recently released Equity & Inclusion Data Report for the 2020-21 school year.
Board chair Clare Wool, who has known Lokossou, Hassan and Almogalli since they were in middle or high school, said she encouraged them all to run for the board and is looking forward to what they will contribute.
"They always stood out to me as students that were active and engaged," Wool said. "I think [they] will absolutely bring a voice that we have not heard ... [The board] can benefit from their real-life, lived experience."
Almogalli and Hassan were both part of the inaugural Burlington City & Lake Semester during the 2018-19 school year, and Lokossou, who graduated in 2018, helped design it during his senior year. The innovative program uses the city as a classroom in which students study real-world issues facing the community.
Signe Daly, a lead faculty member of City & Lake, recalled Hassan moderating a discussion with city councilors as part of the program.
"She just blew everybody out of the water ... really taking charge ... and keeping everybody on task, asking them to stick to the questions, telling them their time was up," Daly said.
- Faizo Hassan
A member of the Somali community, Hassan and her family moved to the United States from a refugee camp in Kenya and settled in Burlington about 15 years ago. She has seven siblings, four of whom still attend Burlington schools. A 2019 high school graduate, she works at Walmart.
Growing up, Hassan attended the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington and later worked there as a lifeguard and a youth counselor. In 2019, she gave the keynote speech at the club's annual fundraiser, speaking about the importance of growing up in a supportive community.
"She's really dynamic," said Tanya Benosky, the club's executive director. "I think she has a particular skill in listening to people and connecting with them."
Lokossou has a similar strength, according to his former high school English teacher Matt Yu.
In a course focused on social justice, Yu recalled Lokossou's thoughtful reflections after reading All American Boys, a book that dealt with racism and police brutality, and the dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale.
"I think what stood out for me in the classroom is his eagerness to learn about how other people live," Yu said.
Lokossou moved to Vermont from Benin, in West Africa, when he was 4. He had a close group of friends in Burlington; performed in shows with the youth acting troupe Very Merry Theatre; played high school football, lacrosse and tennis; and was part of a student planning committee that organized dances and other activities.
"I loved how diverse the school was, and I loved the school's approach to being inclusive," Lokossou said. "Obviously, not everyone is going to get along, but I felt like the school was pretty good at ... welcoming individuals who are new to the environment or new to the country."
Yu, the English teacher, said it gives him hope to see young people such as Lokossou running for the school board. Their presence will help Burlington students feel that they're being "seen and heard," he added.
Until this year, there was just one person of color on the school board. Two years ago, Aden Haji, then 25, won the Ward 8 seat, defeating long-serving incumbent Keith Pillsbury. Haji and his family were the first Somali Bantu refugees to resettle in Vermont in 2003.
But Haji — the first New American Burlington school commissioner and, to his knowledge, the youngest member in its history — decided not to run for a second term. In an email to Seven Days, Haji said his time on the school board was a learning experience, but he feels ready to move on.
"It is not easy to have the courage to run for office," Haji said. "As a community we need to recognize and value [the new members'] input on the board."
Almogalli, a junior at the University of Vermont majoring in biology, ran as an unopposed write-in candidate for Haji's former seat. Almogalli's family left Iraq in 2014 and lived in Turkey for three and a half years before immigrating to the U.S. in 2017. When she enrolled at Burlington High School, she was still learning English.
"Saja has always stood out," her former English language teacher Beth Evans wrote in a message to Seven Days. "From the day I met her, I could tell she was going to go places."
Soon after arriving in Burlington, Almogalli told Evans she wanted to take swimming lessons.
"When I wasn't fast enough to get the YMCA to pay attention, she went and got her own lessons," Evans recalled. "She's just amazing."
- Aquilas Lokossou
Almogalli has mixed feelings about her time at Burlington High School. Her teachers were supportive, she said, but the district did not do a good job including her family in the school community. During her four years, Almogalli said, her mom, who speaks little English, never set foot in the school or talked to any of her teachers. Though Burlington employs home-school liaisons to work with families learning English, Almogalli said there was no liaison for the Arabic-speaking community.
"My family was very left out because of language barriers," Almogalli said.
As a school board member, Almogalli said, she'll try to ensure that English language learners and their families have more opportunities to get involved.
And she sees her youth as an asset.
"I think we still have the idea of, like, the older you are, the more educated you are, the wiser you are," Almogalli said. "[But] I think it's better to have the people who ... experienced the school make changes to the school ... The experts are the young students who went to Burlington High School."
"We have more knowledge and insight about how the school is run," he said. "We can express our voices on what we like about our school and what we didn't like and try to change the narrative for the next students."
When it comes to perhaps the biggest challenge ahead for the school district — planning for the construction of a new, state-of-the-art high school with a price tag of roughly $230 million and selling the idea to Burlington voters — all three newly elected board members said they're still learning about the proposal.
Almogalli, for one, has strong opinions about the temporary downtown high school, where students have been learning for a year after the former campus was closed due to chemical contamination. Her two younger sisters are unhappy attending the windowless school, which occupies a former Macy's department store.
"It's not similar to a school environment anymore," Almogalli said. "I don't blame it on the teachers because it's hard to teach in a mall, but the experience has been very hard for [students]."
Lokossou said he's been talking with board member Kendra Sowers — the mom of one of his best friends — to get a sense of what the job entails.
"I'm beginning to understand the gist of weekly or monthly responsibilities and starting to get an idea of what kind of work I'll be doing," he said.
With the district poised to make critical decisions that will affect students for years to come, Daly, the City & Lake teacher, said she thinks that it's "perfect timing" for Lokossou, Almogalli and Hassan to join the school board.
"It will change the conversation," she said. "How can it not, right? You have three younger people of color in the room."
"I hope this becomes a model for other places," Daly added. "When you show up to youth ... with an authentic dilemma or authentic question, you will get answers that you couldn't have thought of."