Sun photo by Chiaki Kawajiri, April 20, 2007
Before he could begin to lead the fifth-largest school
district in Maryland, Eric J. Smith was told he needed to make time to speak
with one Severna Park family: the Sniders.
Smith sat across the dining table from Terra Ziporyn and Jim H. Snider, parents of three school-age children, and got an earful about the value of the arts and the need for new algebra textbooks and greater transparency in the district's decision making.
"They cared very much about the quality of education in Anne Arundel, and they were never shy about sharing their thoughts on what could be done to improve things," said Smith, who served as superintendent from 2002 to 2005. "They -- their participation -- was crucial."
Since moving to the county five years ago,
the Sniders and their children have emerged as arguably the most influencial family in the system that
educates 74,000 students each year.
The family's middle child, Sage, 17, sat at her first school board meeting yesterday, serving as a student representative two years after her sister Pallas held the same post. They are believed to be the only siblings in the state to serve nearly back-to-back stints on their school board, the only one in the country that gives a student full voting rights.
Jim Snider made an unsucessful bid for school board in 2002. These days, he writes a blog critical of the school board selection process and recently helped the Severna Park High parents' group with suggestions for an honor code to help the school heal from a cheating scandal.
Terra Snider was instrumental in an effort that forced the school district to restore arts and physical education to the curriculum after they had been dropped.
Even the family's youngest child, a middle schooler, serves on his student council.
Supporters and friends herald them as tireless champions for public education. Critics, irritated at their omnipresence at school and parent meetings, call the Sniders gadflies.
The school board here had seen plenty of parents lobby on their children's behalf, but former board member Jane Andrew said the Sniders were "one of the first people to advocate on behalf of the whole community, of all children, not just their own or those in their neighborhood. They opened people's eyes to the real problems in our schools. They were never shy about speaking out. And they shared that value with their children."
The Sniders didn't set out to upend local notions of what it meant to be active in school politics.
They say they were drawn to Anne Arundel County for a number of reasons, including the school system's balance of the arts, foreign language and physical education. Five months after they settled in Severna Park, however, then-Superintendent Carol S. Parham proposed expanding reading instruction in middle schools by eliminating the arts and gym classes and reducing science and social studies instruction.
Sage, who was in fifth grade and looking forward to art classes at Severna Park Middle, came home crying.
"I told her, 'Don't just cry about it. Do something,'" said Terra Snider, who knows a thing or two about that. The Yale- and University of Chicago-trained medical writer and former associate editor at The Journal of the American Medical Association got her start publishing an underground newspaper as an eighth-grader in Evanston, Ill.
Thus marked Sage's entrance to politics: The 10-year-old started a petition at her elementary school, then unsuccessfully lobbied the school board.
Undaunted, Terra Snider and a parent friend co-founded a grass-roots organization, the Coalition for Balanced Excellence in Education. They started chat groups to hash out ideas and rally a base of supporters, contacted national arts education organizations to help them in the effort and were regulars at board meetings, whether or not the middle school schedule issue was on the agenda.
In September 2001, the state board said the county schools had violated state law and forced the school system to reinstate the arts and P.E. in middle schools.
In the wake of that decision, 8,500 middle school students went through a tumultuous schedule shake-up in midyear, the district braced to pay more than $3 million to accommodate the new requirement and the Sniders found themselves the scapegoat.
On the heels of the controversy, Jim Snider vied for a spot on the school board in 2002 and won the support of the county nominating convention. A research director for the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington, he thought his experience on the board in his hometown of Burlington, Vt., helped. But then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening instead tapped a prominent businessman for the seat.
Snider, who now criticizes the school board selection process in a seasonal blog titled "Citizens for an Accountable School Board," said the outcome might have been expected.
"I was worried the whole process disillusioned my children, that they would be afraid to speak out, after seeing what happened to me."
Instead, the episode only heightened Pallas' interest in government.
Then a high school junior, she had climbed through every layer of student government, "and when the opportunity came to do something greater, I really felt like I had to do it."
Once on the board in her senior year, she grew apart from friends because suddenly the things they were talking about didn't gel with the weighty matters on her mind - budget cuts and union negotiations and Smith's abrupt resignation.
Looking back, Pallas said she left the experience "too skeptical for somebody my age."
"It was vicious," she said of her year on the board. "I never knew adults acted that way."
Among the accusations she had to face: Her thoughts were not her own, that she was just a mouthpiece for her parents.
"[Pallas'] parents had tried very hard to get on the board. It became much easier for them once their first daughter got on the board and now they continue that with another one of their children," said Michael J. McNelly, who served on the board from 1995 to 2005. "There's a reason we're the only county in the country that gives student members full voting rights. Everyone else realizes it doesn't make sense to give that much power to a person who may not have ever owned a checkbook."
Pallas shook off the charge.
"Our parents raised us to be independent thinkers, come up with our own opinions."
Sage said she has learned from her sister's and parents' experiences, and isn't afraid to ruffle feathers if necessary.
She's considering resurrecting the issue of delaying high school start times, something Pallas had championed. As proof, she wants to use a documentary she filmed showing students sleeping in first-period classes.
She knows she will be under greater scrutiny than other board members -- first, because she is a student and second, because she's a Snider.
"I am going to study every issue, really educate myself on everything," Sage said.
The third Snider child -- Solon -- says he is not interested in getting on the school board. He is a gifted cellist and pianist, who is thinking of becoming a geneticist.
But he seems fated for politics.
He was just selected to be Severna Park Middle School's delegation leader to the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils - the very place his two sisters began their ascent to the board.