You might know him as “Johnny O,” a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates. But did you know John Olszewski, Jr. was also the 1999-2000 student member of the Board of Education of Baltimore County? In the interview below, Olszewski remembers his time on the Board and describes the impact it has had on his achievements.
What grade were you in and which school did you go to when you served on the Board?
Olszewski: “I was a senior at Sparrows Point High School.”
How did you find out about the opportunity to serve on the Board?
Olszewski: “I think it was my student government advisor at the time who told me about it in conjunction with my counselor.”
Why did you apply to serve on the Board?
Olszewski: “I thought it was important for students to have a stake in the decisions that were affecting us at the time. I knew that I had an interest in public service and thought it would be a good opportunity to learn by doing.”
What did you do as the student member of the Board?
Olszewski: “It was actually a pretty big year. In addition to some curriculum policy changes, I was lucky enough to be able to participate in discussions about and vote on the budget that year. The board members I served with were very supportive, which I think traditionally has been the case.
“I also was lucky enough to be part of the superintendent search and selection process when we hired Dr. Hairston. It was a big step for the system. I believe he was the first person of color selected as the superintendent of the school system, and I think it was an appropriate reflection of the diversity the school system has.
“And, otherwise, I attended board meetings and got to go to Maryland and national school board conferences that year. I really prided myself on being a full and complete member, being prepared, and asking good questions.”
Can you describe any special projects you worked on while on the Board?
Olszewski: “One of the other things we tried to do that year was actually push for legislation in Annapolis to have Baltimore County Public Schools be the second school system in the state and the country, I believe, to give full voting rights to student members. We were unsuccessful, but it was a big project I worked on with the then-countywide student government president. The board members were very supportive. Some of the legislators in Annapolis were supportive, but others were not quite there. It was a lot for one year, I think, so we were pretty busy.”
What did you learn from your experience on the Board?
Olszewski: “I learned that, if you’re a quiet worker, that doesn’t define who you are. Over the course of the year, I was able to prove my worth as a board member and as a colleague to people who were significantly older and had more experience. If you spend the time learning the issues and reading the materials, you can be as effective as the other members.
“I also learned that all perspectives matter, whether they’re from teachers, students, or parents. It’s important that everyone has a seat at the table and that those voices are listened to and incorporated.
“And I learned that we have a big, diverse school system, where there are a lot of opportunities for excellence. But there’s also a need for vigilance so we’re not letting any of our students slip through the cracks.”
What did you do after serving on the Board?
Olszewski: “I left the Board and went to Goucher College. Then, I went to George Washington University, where I got my master’s. And, now, I’m completing my dissertation toward my doctorate in public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“I was elected to the Maryland legislature at age 23 and served for eight and a half years in that capacity. I also was a teacher for seven years for Baltimore County Public Schools. I taught both social studies and special education at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts for five years and then served as a resource teacher in the Office of Professional Development for two.
“I currently am a senior account executive for a company called SAS, leading its state and local government efforts to help governments make sense of their big data using analytics to make decisions that save lives and money and improve outcomes for citizens.
“I’m also married with a nine-month-old daughter.”
How did your time on the Board affect where you are now?
Olszewski: “I’d say that my time on the Board confirmed my belief that public service is an important calling and that we need as many good people as we can possibly have who are willing to make sacrifices to serve their communities.
“It also was a confirmation that public service makes a difference in the lives of others – that’s probably my biggest takeaway from my time on the Board.
“But I was also just appreciative and grateful for the opportunities to understand the diversity of our county and the size and complexity of the school system.”
What advice do you have for other students who are interested in serving on the Board?
Olszewski: “First of all, go for it if you’re interested. And, if you’re lucky enough to be selected to serve, make the most of your time. Visit schools; attend board events; do the research prior to the meetings; and, ultimately, don’t be afraid to ask tough questions or pose meaningful reforms if they’re grounded in your experience as a student or your interactions with other students, parents, teachers, and the information that’s been presented to you.”
Olszewski is one of many former SMOBs whose terms have had a significant impact on them and the directions their lives took. To learn about other former SMOBs, where they are, and where they’re going, keep checking Deliberate Excellence. For more information about SMOBs in general or other members of the Board of Education, click here or here.