By Emily Zhang and Cynthia Chen
Montgomery County is one of two counties in Maryland that gives a student full voting rights on the Board of Education. Richard Montgomery junior, Hana O’Looney is one of the candidate finalists for this year’s 44th SMOB election.
About Hana O’Looney
O’Looney has been a lifelong MCPS student; she has attended six different high school clusters within her 12 years in MCPS. From her experiences moving around to currently serving as Vice President of the countywide student government, she has seen the disparities that exist in the education system.
Past experience in student government
Starting as an alternate class officer in middle school, O’Looney has always had a passion for being involved in the SGA. After seeing issues in her school she wanted to see change, from smaller issues like too much homework to bigger issues like why certain holidays are not days off from school, she got involved in understanding how policy works.
“I realized that as a public school student, there’s a very little amount of change that my principal can make and that my teachers can make,” O’Looney said. “For a lot of the larger systemic issues, I had to reach out to larger forces. I had to reach out to the county, I had to reach out to the Board of Education, and so I started doing everything I could to get involved there because I really did care.”
One of the first initiatives that really got her deeply involved in the system was the menstrual equity issue, which she first brought up to the Board in January of last year. Through hours of meetings and sending emails, she made sure the momentum behind the initiative was kept up.
“I think that was the experience that really got me involved in MCPS and really got me recognizing all the places we should be doing better,” O’Looney said.
Currently, O’Looney meets with student representatives from every school as VP of the countywide student government, she serves as chair of MCPS’s official countywide female empowerment organization and has assisted a number of policy workgroups for MCPS.
Experience running for SMOB
Hectic, eye-opening and beneficial – three words that perfectly describe O’Looney’s campaigning experience. So far, she has visited 53 schools in the county and heard from hundreds of students virtually, which she aims to continue doing for the rest of the campaign.
“I average like three, four school visits, and then meetings, and then I try to go to as many community events as possible and do things like interviews, so definitely a very packed schedule. I do enjoy it though,” O’Looney said.
Vision for MCPS
A concept that lies at the core of her campaign and one she hopes to be as the next SMOB is someone who shares her seat with others. She recognizes the diversity of experiences within MCPS and hopes to involve other perspectives.
“I’m committed to diverse communication methods,” O’Looney said. “I’m committed to visiting every single middle and high school at least once per semester during my term so that everyday students, students who aren’t involved maybe because they can’t be, or maybe because they have other priorities, can reach out to me about their concerns.”
O’Looney hopes to make the “MCPS education” more equitable and address the disparities across the county. Specifically, she wants to work on the vast opportunity gap and differences in educational opportunities awarded to students.
“Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, but it really isn’t doing that in our county,” O’Looney said. “It’s making things in some cases worse, so I wanna make sure that I’m coming at this position from a real educational equity lens, and making sure that regardless of who you are, regardless of your zip code, regardless of what school you go to, you have access to the world-class education that you deserve.”
Lack of Diversity
An important issue for O’Looney is anti-racism and diversity. 72% of staff in the MCPS school system are white, despite white students making up less than 24% of the student population.
“I really wanna make sure that we are diversifying our staff because I have been a student again 12 years, I’ve had four black teachers, I’ve had one Hispanic teacher, and one Asian teacher,” O’Looney said. “I’ve never had an east Asian teacher, even though I’m east Asian, so I’ve never had a teacher that actually looks like me, and that’s not representative of our student body.”
Being an Asian-American student herself, O’Looney can speak to the lack of diversity and representation of Asian-Americans in staffing as well as the curriculum.
“I am one of those Asian American students who does not feel represented in our curriculum,” O’Looney said. “Our curriculums, English curriculums, history curriculums, health curriculums, even things like science curriculums, are really taught from a straight, white, male, heterosexual, American, native, English-speaking perspective. That’s not who we are, that’s not what America is, and that’s not what the world is.”
In early 2021, MCPS hired an outside corporation that specializes in diversity and anti-racism to review MCPS’s internal policies and curriculum, and the results of this audit will come out early in the next SMOB’s term.
“I really want to make this a huge priority in my term to actually do something with those results of the anti-racism audit and commit to diversifying our curriculum,” O’Looney said. “I think this is an issue that we’ve been hearing about from the past three or four SMOBs and we really haven’t seen anything substantive come out of it, but I think this is finally our opportunity to actually get something done.”
O’Looney is also passionate about minimizing the opportunity gap and the disparities in educational opportunities that are awarded to students based on where they live and which school they attend.
“I want to make sure that we make strides to reduce that, that regardless of who you are, regardless of where you live, you get the same educational opportunities as the next person,” O’Looney said.
A couple of ideas O’Looney has in order to achieve this goal are universal test preparation programs for the SAT, ACT, AP, IB and magnet exams, and equal course offerings at each school.
COVID-19 and Reopening Schools
In early March, many students in the MCPS school system are prepared to return to school in-person for the first time in almost a year. Maryland currently has the lowest percentage of students who have returned to in-person schooling in the United States. O’Looney agrees that it is important for students to be back in school given the proper precautions taken by MCPS.
Besides physical health concerns, O’Looney stresses the importance of having adequate mental health support for students.
“Regardless of whether you have a prior history of mental health conditions, it’s pretty much guaranteed that reopening is going to be a really stressful process for all of us,” O’Looney said. “We need to provide way more mental health support than we ever did before, investing into counseling, investing into psychologists, and pushing leniency in deadlines, and due dates, and assignments, and grades, and attendance.”
Advice for other students
Regardless of whether or not O’Looney is elected to the board, she hopes to continue her involvement in MCPS policy. She also encourages others to get involved in the many opportunities in MCPS, ranging from the class level all the way to the county level.
“In terms of the county level, I would say the Montgomery County Regional Student Government is a great place to start,” O’Looney said. “They have that at both the high school and middle school level so that’s a really good way to start to understand that way that policymaking happens in our county.”
Other organizations not affiliated with MCPS, like MoCo for Change, MoCo Students Towards Equitable Public Schools (STEPS) and MoCo Against Brutality, are also all good opportunities to participate in.
“My singular experiences in MCPS, even though I’ve been to probably a lot more schools than most people have, cannot speak for everyone, and they never will be able to speak for everyone. So I wanna make sure that I’m bringing other people into the conversation.”
Learn more about O’Looney’s campaign: https://www.hana4smob.com/
This article was provided by Chinese American Parents Association Junior Reporter Club (CAPA JRC) with members who interviewed, audio recorded, wrote, translated, and video recorded. CAPA JRC has 19 Montgomery County middle to high school students. They have created a bilingual platform delivering news and serving the community.