PORTLAND — It’s not every day a member of the Portland School Board meets the president of the United States.
But for Jenna Vendil, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.
After attending a conference several weeks ago, Vendil, 26, was selected to participate in a smaller conference in Washington, D.C., with 200 members of the Young Elected Officials organization.
“It was fun,” Vendil said. “I felt deeply honored to be there. I kept pinching myself, asking ‘Am I really here? Am I really about to walk up the steps of the White House?'”
Vendil, who grew up in a single-parent household in San Fransisco and moved to Maine for college, said her struggles as a young person inspired her to run for the School board.
“I was raised by a single mom. We were homeless a couple times,” she said. “But the stabilizing force in my life was my teachers. I could always rely on them to be there when I didn’t have a place to go home to or I just wanted to talk.”
Vendil said her teachers told her about their own college experiences and inspired her to attend Bates College in Lewiston.
After graduating, Vendil worked for the League of Young Voters until she was elected in 2008.
She said the conference in Washington highlighted issues important to Portland, including economic and small business development, and climate change.
But the most exciting part for Vendil was the opportunity to provide policy books created by the English Language Learners at Deering High School to members of President Obama’s staff. The books included the students’ suggestions for ways to make the ELL program work better for them, including more openness about the testing process and clearer test results, so students who do not pass know what to work on.
Vendil said she was also interested in working with Maine’s congressional delegation on changes to the way the federal Department of Education measures drop-out rates, something the group discussed during the conference.
“They’re not a reflection on reality,” Vendil said of the current method of only counting a student as a graduate if he or she takes four years, from freshman year to graduation. Students who take five or six years to graduate do not count.
“I think we have some potential to work with our senators and representatives, and that’s something I’d like to do,” Vendil said.
And, of course, Vendil was excited to hear President Obama speak during the conference. She said Obama spoke about his background in community organizing.
“It was very encouraging,” Vendil said. “As a community organizer himself, he talked about how important it is to be on the front lines, and that you don’t run to be somebody, you run to change something.”
Portland School Board member Jenna Vendil stands in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 17, where she spent the day meeting with government officials and President Obama.