Natalie Bandura — the daughter of Russian immigrants — entered kindergarten in Norwalk without knowing a word of English.
She learned quickly. Her parents moved to Westport, and as a Staples High School freshman she tutored Spanish-speaking elementary students in her former town. Last year, during COVID, she founded the Little Learners Club, a virtual project with another Norwalk elementary school.
Now Natalie advocates for students like those — and her Staples peers — all over the state. She is one of 2 high school members of the Connecticut Board of Education.
And although she and counterpart Rishabh Bandari of Wilton do not vote, they have voices. Their charge is to represent the perspectives of students, and show how educational decisions made by adults will impact youngsters.
It’s an important role. But it’s not the only one Natalie has undertaken. The Staples senior is a member of the National Honor Society and Latin Honor Society, editor-in-chief of the school newspaper Inklings, math team captain, Link Crew mentor, creator of Masks That Matter and Top Hat tutor.
In her spare time, she is a Latin ballroom dancing competitor.
But the state Board of Education post is pretty cool. Natalie admits that when she first heard of the opportunity from assistant principal Chase Dunlap, she thought it was for the Westport Board of Ed.
She soon realized it was orders of magnitude larger. The application process included a personal statement. Natalie wrote about the discrepancies between the opportunities afforded students she knew through her Norwalk tutoring, and those she’d worked with at a Greenwich STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) camp.
She said she was used to working with schools and administrators, and mentioned another experience: attending the Youth Leader Summit last summer. (It’s usually in Singapore; because of COVID, this one was virtual.)
Natalie had 2 rounds of interviews, and another with an aide to Governor Lamont. She had a chance to meet the governor later — along with US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (a former Connecticut Commissioner of Education), and Congresswoman Jahana Hayes.
Her first Board of Education meeting this month was a heady experience. She had an ID badge and a parking spot; in front of her seat was a microphone.
Natalie and Rishabh took the initiative to introduce themselves to other members, and ask about their backgrounds and goals.
Once the meeting began, Natalie spoke up about COVID contact tracing. She noted that although it works in classrooms, it breaks down in school cafeterias. She also jumped into a discussion about school funding and the learning gap, and diversity issues.
Other members thanked the two student representatives for their insights. “They want us to be vocal,” Natalie notes.
She knows the importance of using her voice to represent all Connecticut students. She knows too that Staples High School is different from most schools. She feels fortunate that living in Norwalk, and tutoring there, has given her different perspectives.
As a kindergartner who did not speak English, Natalie could never have imagined sitting on a statewide body.
But now that she’s there, the youngest member of the state Board of Education says, she’s eager to talk.