Student leaders demand to be heard at CSBA’s Annual Education Conference

Following a rousing performance by Alhambra Unified School District’s Mark Keppel High School all-male hip hop dance crew, as well as an address from State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who spoke about ongoing literacy efforts and the integration of programs and strategies to help support students and transform education in California schools, the Second General Session of CSBA’s Annual Education Conference and Trade Show began in earnest.

Comprising a panel discussion among six current and former school board members and other student leaders and moderated by CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy, it was apparent that students are wanting, willing and prepared to navigate nuanced discussions about racism, bias, representation, mental health, resilience, technology, agency and more. Now, they are asking that school board members and school leaders embrace discomfort and meet them halfway as tomorrow’s leaders seek solutions to address longstanding inequities.

“I want to encourage everyone to listen to these young leaders and try to understand their experiences and their thoughts as incoming leaders of this great state,” Billy told the audience. “Now, you may not agree with their comments — and in fact, some of their opinions may make you feel a little uncomfortable — but I hope that you will listen along as we have an unvarnished conversation and try to gain a greater understanding and insight into how students view our education system and the world that we all live in.”

Mental health

The isolation and increased reliance on social media for connection undoubtedly impacted students’ mental health for the worse, said Precious King, a 2020–21 student board member from San Jacinto Unified School District. While King said she came out of the experience a stronger, better person, that doesn’t mean students and teachers alike aren’t in need of a serious boost to mental health supports. Establishing trusting relationships with teachers, checking in on them and providing services or resources if needed will be crucial moving forward.

“Honestly, mental health [challenges are] very present and not only in students, but also in teachers. The pandemic definitely didn’t help,” King said, noting that learning won’t take place if mental health issues remain unchecked. “Everyone’s mental health matters … and we need to take care of that —depression, anxiety, social anxiety — all types of different things that directly affect our education and how we perceive it and retain information.”

In addition to straightforward mental health services, 2020–21 Oakland USD student board member Jessica Ramos said in the last year her district removed the permanent presence of police from school grounds and boosted resources for Spanish-speaking students and their families — strategies that have been shown to increase a sense of belonging among youth of color in particular.

“What I learned is that students need to organize. Students have to advocate for themselves,” Ramos said, recalling board meetings that lasted all night. “What we learned was just that students had to stay up ‘til 2 a.m. to ask for what they needed from their schools, what they wanted after the pandemic coming back into school.”

It’s on the adults, however, to ensure that those types of barriers to student participation in their local district governance are removed. For instance, a friend of Ramos’ whose experiences serve as an example of student need couldn’t engage in that way with the school board because she was busy cooking and cleaning up after her four siblings while completing college applications and her own schoolwork. “School was not there for her at the end of the day — she decided to drop out,” Ramos said. “This is what we’re here to think about — what do students need in our schools to succeed?

Anti-racism and equity

Equity was a recurring topic throughout the discussion. Asked when he learned about education funding and how resources are allocated according to student needs, Sacramento City USD 2021–22 student board member Isa Sheikh responded with his own question: “Are they allocated based on student needs? In so many ways we’ve allowed the squabbles and politics between adults to allocate those dollars for us before we can actually think about student needs,” Sheikh said.

As things stand currently, 91-93 cents on the dollar is going toward salaries and benefits, which, while important, leaves board members basically looking for pennies when aiming to fund the sort of things that students need, Sheikh explained. Meanwhile, as the debates surrounding critical race theory overwhelm board meetings, he said the need to ensure students receive lessons painting a fuller, more nuanced picture of California and United States history is often overlooked.

That’s where the work of Orange USD graduate Jasmine Nguyen and Conejo Valley USD graduate Katelin Zhou comes in. In 2020, the Stanford University students founded Diversify Our Narrative, a student-led nonprofit organization that advocates for productive dialogue on race and identity through the inclusion of racially diverse, anti-racist texts in schools.

Everyone has biases that they may have been picked up throughout their lives, and there’s nothing wrong with being able to say that you’ve had these potential thoughts or biases and be willing to unlearn them, Nguyen said. “I know that as people serving on school boards, you care about your students,” she said. “You care about making spaces that are inclusive and warm and comfortable, that foster environments where they can learn and grow and thrive. And in order to do that, if you have to have those tough conversations — let them be tough.”

King and 2021–22 San Diego USD student board member Zachary Patterson both agreed with Nguyen’s sentiment, acknowledging that these issues can’t be ignored because students are already having these conversations. In addition, districts must look for new ways to address these challenges. Patterson noted how often, old ideas and initiatives are simply rebranded. “We talk about them being our own but are we really changing what we’ve done before?” he asked. “When you perpetuate the status quo, the status quo continues.”

Zhou of Diversify Our Narrative noted the hunger among youth to overcome systems that propagate prejudice and expand their own agency, ownership and responsibility over their educations. The increase in student involvement with their local school boards and showing up to meetings for the first time to advocate for the curriculum changes they want to see in the past year “has been phenomenally inspiring,” she said. Moving forward, boards must make concerted efforts to increase students’ ability to engage with district governance — especially those whose voices have long been marginalized.

“Being a board member comes with great power but also a great responsibility to elevate the voices of those who may not have traditionally have a seat at the table. I think that’s something really important to take away with everything you guys do,” Zhou told attendees. “You guys see a lot of important policy making, and making sure it’s not always about who might be the loudest in the room [is important] … but who is truly being impacted by these choices and who deserves to have their voice amplified and may need your help in been doing so?”

Student autonomy and engagement

Another topic that drew passionate conversation from student leaders was the need for boards to more seriously embrace their student board members and student voices overall. To Patterson, the issue largely boils down to student experiences and understanding of topics not being seen as “enough.”

“So many times throughout our lives as students, we’re told we’re not enough, not prepared enough, not smart enough, not ready to be full trustees on a board of education,” Patterson said, noting that even now, student board members  do not have a full vote (Learn more about the role of student board members and the statewide push to gain full voting rights). “We are students that are looking to be the changemakers in the education system. And yet every time we look to speak up, we are not heard.”

Sheikh agreed, noting that “the role can be tokenized to an extreme degree.” In some cases, student board members don’t even sit at the same table during board meetings, and even in his situation where he had a good relationship with his board, “it wasn’t until the last few months of my tenure, that I actually got non-confidential board readings on things that were incredibly relevant to my fellow students’ everyday experiences,” he said. “You’re applauded for saying things, but your actual words are heard but not listened to.”

Indeed, building trust in the board among youth will require not just hearing what students have to say, but actually listening and analyzing what they’ve contributed, Ramos said. In addition to fully including a student board member, that requires visiting campuses and speaking directly with students. “I know board members who have never visited their own district schools … and it’s like, wow, then why are you sitting on this board if you don’t even know what’s going on in your district?” she said. “That was one of the things I took as my important roles — to be able to listen to every student or every student I could reach out to, to be able to see what I could bring to the table to the school board meetings.”

Ramos exemplifies the role of a school board member in her efforts to understand a wide range of student perspective and use that knowledge to help direct policy decisions, Patterson said. Yet she was likely the one in the room whose input was least likely to be taken seriously due to her status as a student.

Even the most well-intentioned adults in the room should be cognizant of the signals they send their student board members, he explained. For instance, suggesting a student member go home early to do their homework may seem like a lighthearted comment, but Patterson said it sets the expectation that their presence at meetings isn’t needed.

“When you tell the student board member over and over again, through explicit and implicit actions that they are not enough, they’ll believe it and then we have stopped the ability of students to communicate to the board of education,” he said. “We can change this, but it’s up to each and every one of us to look inside and ask, ‘how do I confront our student board member? How do I confront students on our school site councils? Or just in the schools? Do I listen? Am I respectful? And am I willing to actually put them into a decision-making role?’”