A Well-Deserved Award for Sarah Cole

I both admire and adore Sarah Cole. She is a special kind of teacher. Actually, she's a special kind of human being. Compassionate, loving, inclusive, brave, hilarious -- that's Sarah. Sarah is the Activities Director and Leadership Adviser at Hillsboro High School in Hillsboro, Oregon, and she deserves an award.

Last year, Hillsboro High School's elected student leaders made the decision by consensus to end the tradition of having a homecoming court, saying: "Holding up a select few students based on ambiguous social criteria and social standing does not reflect the values of our school." Homecoming court, they said, was not an inclusive tradition. Moreover, the students at the school had hardly voted in previous years, with less than 30% turnout. Support for the tradition was waning, and the students decided it was time for new traditions that included the entire senior class.

Sounds like a thoughtful and compelling idea, right? Doesn't sound particularly earth shattering, does it?

Not so fast.

Of course, there are always defenders of the status quo. A small set of community members offered loud protestations, lamenting the end of a tradition and decrying the horrifying trend toward political correctness (others call it a trend towards respect and inclusivity; others still call it common sense). One nearly unbelievable storyline unfolded when a former Homecoming Queen from 2004 came forward to the local press, yearbook in hand, to say that this just wasn't right. And what, exactly, was so wrong about being more inclusive of all students? "There are different rankings in society...and that's just the way it is," she said on television to KGW news

Some of us, it turns out, prefer a vision closer to "all people are created equal." Others like a more hierarchical model -- just so long as they're near the top, I suppose.

More outlets than just KGW picked up the story; local media including The Oregonian, The Hillsboro Tribune, KATU, KOIN, Fox 12, KING 5, and more, all inundated Sarah Cole with requests for comment and provided detractors a platform to take shots. There is a certain irony in the fact Sarah Cole, who goes to heroic lengths to take care of and serve her students, was relatively unknown by the local media until this decision, which was made by her students. I guess that's why, to her kids, she's somewhere between a mom and a celebrity. They love this woman, because she is protective of them, she stands up for them, she tries to give them every opportunity possible to succeed. And, just like with the homecoming decision, she always has their back.

I've known Sara for a few years. We've both been involved with the Oregon Association of Student Councils (OASC) for a long time, and now we are both on the board of directors of the organization. We have a bad habit of sitting next to each other at meetings and making each other laugh. I've watched her be a consistent and powerful voice for equity, and I've watched her stretch her budgets and find money from unlikely sources to make sure all of her kids, including and especially her low income students, have opportunities to develop their leadership potential. Every year, she finds a way to offer dozens of scholarships to her kids for camps, workshops, and conferences. She cares about her kids as much as any teacher I've ever known. They really are her kids.

Tonight, at the Oregon Safe Schools and Communities Coalition's Sixth Annual Safe Schools Awards, Sarah Cole will be awarded the Adult Ally Award for her courage in standing by her students' decision to create a more inclusive school. No one deserves it more. And while I doubt the laundry list of television channels and newspapers who reported on the homecoming decision will be there tonight to highlight this well-deserved award for Sarah Cole, they ought to be. 

Congratulations, Sarah -- and thank you for all you do for kids.