YORK, Maine – Eighth grader Gabriel Caraballo waved goodbye to his York Middle School classmates – a cluster of tiny squares on the screen of his laptop – as he sat near the kitchen island wrapping up another day of remote learning due to the latest COVID-19 surge.
Gabriel, 13, has been thinking a lot lately about the people those tiny squares represent and about how he can best represent them in his conversations with state education officials.
Gabriel was chosen late last year to represent York County on the Maine Department of Education Student Cabinet, which consists of 16 to 20 students, including representatives from each of Maine's 16 counties.
Cabinet members, who meet once a month over the course of their two-year terms, have met twice since Gabriel joined. So far, he said, their discussions have centered around finding strategies to better support students' mental health, combat substance abuse and push for more diversity and inclusion.
"Right now with COVID, it's difficult to focus on schoolwork and trying to get homework in on time … we were talking about how it affects people in our school,” Gabriel said Wednesday, Jan. 12. “With everything going on in the world … you need a break to slow down."
'This is America': Removal of York High School student artwork on racism sparks furor
Cabinet members around the same age split into breakout groups and discuss possible solutions to address issues in their schools, then the entire group comes together to share ideas, Gabriel said.
This marks the third year that Maine DOE has created a student cabinet to gauge input and ideas from a diverse body of students from fourth through 12th grade, plus first-year college students. The group of students meets quarterly with the DOE commissioner to discuss educational opportunities, improvements and policy.
"It feels good because then we can get different ideas from different perspectives of what other people think and see," Gabriel said.
Gabriel and fellow cabinet members will have a special opportunity to design a pilot project "to reinvent how schools think about remote and responsive learning" through a federally funded Reinventing Responsive Education Ventures (RREV) initiative, according to Maine DOE.
One of the goals associated with the RREV initiative is for cabinet members to reflect on their experiences over the course of the pandemic.
"The purpose of the Student Cabinet is to provide a forum for Maine students' voices to be heard," state education officials said.
Shy member of diverse family
Being a shy person for most of his life, Gabriel had never been one to voice his beliefs loudly, according to his mother, Grecia Caraballo, who teaches Spanish at York High School.
After a social studies teacher told Gabriel he’d be a good fit for the cabinet, he came home and told his mother that he wanted to apply.
“I am extremely proud of him,” Grecia Caraballo said. “I was surprised because he's a very shy person … so when he came home and told me that this is something he wanted to try, I was like, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' He was like, 'Yeah, Mommy, I want to have a voice.' "
“We are a diverse family, and here in York, we don't have a lot of diversity,” she said. “We have very (few) kids that look like him at school. So if somebody like him can have a voice to make kids that look like him feel better in our community … that's wonderful.”
“Even when he was young, he wanted to fit in and he would ask me, ‘Mommy, why do I look different?' " she added. "He wanted to look just like his friends … that was hard for him, it was a very difficult situation."
In addition to his role on the student cabinet, Gabriel was named president of the YMS Gender, Equality and Race Club last month.
“I started last year because my sister was in the Black Lives Matter for York, Maine … she made me join, then I stuck with it and I really like it now,” Gabriel said. “Since I began the GEAR Club, I realized that I'm perfect for who I am and I don't have to be somebody else.”
Jailynn Caraballo, who graduated from YHS in 2017, is eight years older than her brother. Although she’s now outspoken on issues surrounding racism, equity and inclusion, she said she wasn’t as vocal as a student at YMS and YHS. She said she encountered a lot of ignorance and bullying related to her race.
"Not only were students completely closed off and uneducated about other cultures and communities around them, but they were growing up in a very sheltered environment," she said. "We do live in an incredibly sheltered town, but that doesn't mean that students and learning experiences have to be sheltered."
Jailynn Caraballo, who became a local activist organizing in the wake of George Floyd's 2020 murder in Minneapolis, said state and local efforts to bring more equity, diversity and inclusion into schools across Maine have made a big difference, but York schools should continue to strive for improvement.
Grecia Caraballo said she's proud to see Gabriel step into the student cabinet role.
"The fact that he's doing this is showing us that he's growing and he appreciates who he is now," she said.
York School Superintendent Lou Goscinski, too, praised Gabriel for representing his YMS peers and the school district.
"I think it's critical that we listen to our young people and get their perspective ... I'm really proud of Gabriel for being selected," he said.
"I think it's wonderful that the state is working to get student input because they're in schools every day dealing with these issues that are important to them," he added.
Jailynn Caraballo said she looks forward to seeing how this experience shapes Gabriel's future.
"I'm really excited seeing him get involved, particularly because middle school is a hard time in everyone's life," she said. "I'm very proud as his older sister to see him doing things that interest him."
For his part, Gabriel Caraballo said he intends to start a GEAR club at YHS when he becomes a freshman next school year.
Although the DOE student cabinet has taken action to uplift the voices of students across Maine, Gabriel said more progress is still needed.
"Adults could do better at letting people that are younger, with fresh minds, come up with ideas to make the community better than what it was, and also having more minds to create more ideas," he said.
Additionally, he said it's important for schools to foster a safe environment for students' concerns to be heard.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: York ME eighth grader Gabriel Caraballo learning about representation