Smyrna junior earns spot on state board of education

SMYRNA — In middle school, Elise Sampson asked her teacher why she wasn’t nominated for National Junior Honor Society. She recalls being told, “You’re already in enough; you already have enough.”

“That was never acceptable for me,” she said. “And I feel like it shouldn’t be acceptable for anyone. Anyone is capable of doing these things with the work you have to put in. And these things don’t just come without hard work.”

Elise, a junior at Smyrna High School, is the second student to be appointed to the state board of education, along with Brandywine School District’s Mount Pleasant Elementary School second-grade teacher Wendy Turner.

In 2018, the General Assembly passed House Bill 455, which allowed the governor to annually appoint to the board a junior or senior student and former State Teacher of the Year who also is a current educator to serve as non-voting members.

“Students and educators always deserve a seat at the table when we’re making decisions about Delaware schools,” Gov. Carney said in a statement. “I appreciate the willingness of Wendy and Elise to serve in these important roles. I look forward to the great work they will do on behalf of all Delawareans.”

Elise founded the Black Student Union at Smyrna High School, where she has served as class president, student ambassador and a Student Government Association member, according to a news release. She was selected for the Governor’s School of Excellence for 2020. She also is active in musical groups and nonprofit organizations that give her opportunities to volunteer in her community, the news release states.

“I also work, I run a club at school and I’m just involved in a lot,” she said. “It’s a little overwhelming but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I love staying busy. I’m also so proud of myself for coming this far only being a junior.”

She said it was humbling to be tapped for the position, and that it made her look at all of what she’s accomplished with pride.

In addition to the other roles she’s a part of, Elise formed Smyrna’s BSU last year — a goal she had coming into the school as a freshman, she said in a previous interview. Last summer, she put together a business plan. When school resumed, she presented it to the principal on the second day of classes. After that, they were up and running, she said.

“I was always in the principal’s office, telling them about things I think they should change to be more inclusive for other students or things that would be more beneficial for student success and academic success,” she said.

Due to that, when her principal told her about the position on the state school board, she knew it would be the perfect position for her.

“Some of these people haven’t been in classrooms for over 40 years and they are not getting any student feedback or seeing anything from a student’s perspective. Although these are mature adults and they have a lot of insight and they’re very well-educated, they will never understand what it’s like to be a student in 2020,” she said. “You’re directly hearing from the student [about] the problems that we’re having in the classrooms and the things that would be more beneficial for students on an everyday basis.”

Looking toward her future, Elise wants to attend an HBCU, and is interested in criminal law and procedure, political science or pre-law. She has her sights set on a law degree and a job as a civil rights attorney.

“I feel like all of this goes toward that because it shows my dedication to what I want to do. Everything that I’ve done thus far fits exactly into place with what I want to do and the steps that I want to take in the future of creating change,” she said.

Ms. Turner, who also will be joining the board, earned her undergraduate degree in accounting from Boston College and started her career in the business world. She returned to school at Wilmington University to earn her Master of Education and become a teacher. She earned the 2016 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching for her science instruction. In 2019, she was named a National Education Association Global Learning Fellow to South Africa. That same year she also was honored by the Governor’s Office as a Compassionate Champion for her work supporting social emotional learning.

“We are very excited to welcome Wendy and Elise as our new board members,” State Board of Education President Whitney Sweeney said in a statement. “We learned firsthand the value of a student and current teacher in our classrooms sitting at the table with us last year. Their unique perspective is even more valuable as we face unprecedented challenges in making sure we meet the needs of all students in the current environment.”