Students want more say in district accountability plan process

June 1, 2014

During a State Board of Education meeting last month, Student Voice Coalition members held numbered masks over their faces to symbolize their belief that districts view them as statistics rather than a people.

While California school districts held an unprecedented number of meetings and conducted scores of surveys seeking parent, community and staff input to develop financial blueprints to improve learning for their neediest children, some students are concerned that their voices have been left out of the process.

The state’s new school funding law requires that stakeholder groups, including students, be consulted as districts develop their Local Control and Accountability Plans. Those state-mandated plans must outline districts’ financial and educational priorities while specifically identifying strategies that improve services for high-needs students — low-income pupils, English learners and foster youth.

The current temporary state regulations includes requirements for school districts regarding parent engagement but not student input. Districts must present their accountability plans to parent advisory committees and English Language Learner parent advisory committees for their feedback. School districts also are required to “notify the public of the opportunity to submit written comments,” about the plans.

The lack of a specific pupil engagement process led a group of students from across the state to create the Student Voice Coalition and Campaign, which advocates for a “clear and meaningful role” for students throughout the school funding process. Members of the coalition, which was founded under the guidance of Californians for Justice, an adult and youth-led advocacy organization, detailed their concerns during a State Board of Education meeting May 8 in Sacramento.

Coalition members want to provide districts with a menu of options to engage students in the accountability plan process. They also believe the template that districts are using to record their plans should ask how districts “meaningfully engaged students” as they drafted their proposals.

To emphasize their point, high school students supporting the coalition during the May 8 state board meeting held numbered masks over their faces, symbolizing their belief that districts view them as statistics rather than a people. The coalition’s campaign is called, “My Future, My Voice.”

“By taking away our voice you hear nothing of our struggles and it makes it impossible for you guys to meet our needs,” Pashael Dorsey, an 11th grader at Oakland High School, told the board.

Michael Kirst, the president of the State Board of Education, said in a statement that the new school funding formula “emphasizes local decision-making and requires stakeholder input.” He went on to call the “student voice” an essential part of that process.

Julie White, spokeswoman for the state board, said board members plan to consider changes to the accountability plan regulations and template in July. White said with more than 1,000 school districts across California, there’s bound to be a variety of approaches to capturing community feedback.

The wide range of student engagement approaches is precisely why Dorsey, the Oakland High School junior, told the state board that a formal process should be adopted to collect student input.

Saa’un P. Bell, Californians for Justice’s lead organizer in Oakland, said if regulations regarding student consultation remain vague, some districts might do the “bare minimum” to engage them in the process. Bell said some state board members have raised concerns that setting up a formal pupil engagement process would limit districts’ flexibility, but she argued that administrators should collaborate with students in their districts to determine how to best seek their opinions.

A Student Voice Coalition survey of 35 students who have been involved in the accountability plan process in their eight school districts found that only 1 of 5 believed that their district valued their opinions. Almost two-thirds of the students surveyed said they were not clearly told how their feedback would be used to draft the plan. Students surveyed attended schools in the following districts: Coachella Valley, Eastside Union, Emeryville, Fresno, Long Beach, Oakland, San Francisco Unified and West Contra Costa.

“Student voice needs to be an expectation and a requirement for all of our schools to improve and get 100 percent of our students college, career and community ready,” Aurora Lopez, the student engagement liaison for the Oakland Unified School District, told the state board in May.

Ongoing conversations

Of the seven districts EdSource is tracking as each implements the new education funding law, some had minimal input from their students, while others conducted student surveys and held meetings with high school leaders.

The West Contra Costa Unified School District included six student members on the parent advisory committee charged with overseeing the accountability plan draft.

But Alejandro Guerrero, a Richmond High School junior who is following West Contra Costa Unified’s accountability plan process, said the district’s proposal needs to be written more clearly so that it makes sense to high school students.

“The [draft LCAP] needs to be easier to understand and there needs to be more youth involvement, more effort to get youth to community meetings,” Guerrero said during a recent parent advisory committee meeting.

East Side Union students Karla Rodriguez, left, Cesar Gutierrez, center, and Tony Bui talk about the need for more student voices in the LCAP process. They are active in Californians for Justice, an adult and youth-led advocacy group, that has called on the State Board of Education to amend regulations to explicitly require student engagement. Credit: John Fensterwald.

Students from the East Side Union High School District are actively advocating at the district and state level for students to have a more formal role in the accountability plan process. Students took their case to the May 15 school board meeting, holding signs that read: “I’m a student and my voice matters.”

East Side Union Superintendent Chris Funk endorsed the Student Voice Coalition and said he is willing to work with students more closely next school year. Last fall, the 24,000-student district in East San Jose received more than 1,000 surveys from students who ranked the district’s needs and spending priorities. Funk also conducted half a dozen conversations with students last year as part of the district’s strategic plan.

Tony Bui, a sophomore at James Lick High School who testified before the state board this month, said he appreciated his appointment as one of two students on East Side Union’s district advisory budget committee. But, while hardly shy, Bui said his was only a small voice on a committee largely made up of teachers and administrators.

Sitting on the lawn outside the district office before East Side Union’s first public hearing, Bui, along with student leaders Cesar Gutierrez and Karla Rodriguez, said they would like the menu options that districts use to engage students in the accountability plan process to include forums, surveys and their favorite choice – “participatory budgeting.” That’s a yearlong process in which parents, students and teachers would reach agreement on their top priority, then move to the next. Funk said he’s open to trying the process at some school sites.

The three students didn’t criticize East Side Union’s proposed accountability plan and agreed more academic counselors, a priority of the LCAP, is important. But Gutierrez, a senior at Independence High School, said students have loudly complained about the filthy condition of bathrooms and the drug use that goes on there. The district does plan to hire more building maintenance workers, Funk said.

Meanwhile, San Bernardino City Unified School District reported that some students attended community and subcommittee meetings about the accountability plan but no meetings were held specifically with students.

Associated Student Body leaders from San Diego Union School District were invited to participate on the accountability plan writing team but were unable to attend. However, the comments of some San Diego students were featured at the start of five community-wide forums.

For the Santa Ana Unified School District, the accountability plan was the perfect vehicle for the district’s new top administrators, many of whom were hired in the past year, to learn more about the district’s strengths and weaknesses.

David Haglund, Santa Ana Unified’s deputy superintendent for educational services, speaks with students about using their cell phones to access the Internet at Santa Ana High School in a follow-up discussion to a meeting about the district’s accountability plan. Credit: Karla Scoon Reid

David Haglund, Santa Ana Unified’s deputy superintendent for educational services, met with about 1,700 high school students on their campuses. In addition to Associated Student Body leaders, Santa Ana Unified held meetings with a cross-section of students at each high school.

“If we are thinking of taking a fresh approach to secondary education, then we also need to talk to kids who haven’t been successful in the current system and determine what disengaged them,” Haglund said.

It’s for that reason that Haglund said the meetings, which were videotaped to record students’ comments, weren’t solely focused on the accountability plan. The wide-ranging, sometimes hours-long discussions also sparked immediate changes.

Students’ complaints about the quality of their cafeteria food led to a food services department audit. The district arranged for food trucks to visit each high school to conduct taste tests and revamped cafeteria menus. Although cell phone use is generally discouraged on school campuses, students’ request to use the district’s network to access the Internet was granted.

Haglund, who promised students that the meetings would be ongoing conversations, held a recent follow-up meeting this month with 22 Associated Student Body leaders from Santa Ana High School.

By design, these meetings are fashioned more like a conversation than a brainstorming session. During a recent meeting at Santa Ana High School, Haglund acknowledged all feedback with a reassuring smile and even encouraged students to lobby their principal for changes that were specific to their campuses, like using their cell phones to conduct research on the Internet. Students tackled topics from online learning to ranking teacher performance.

“Teachers need to be re-evaluated,” senior Flor Castro said matter-of-factly. “A lot of kids go by the whole year without learning anything.”

One student even pointed out students playing soccer unsupervised on the campus outside their classroom window while other classes were in session and asked Haglund: “Can you fix that?”

Jasmine Davalos, a senior and the Associated Student Body president at Santa Ana High, said the school needs more counselors or help from outside community groups to help students navigate the complicated college admissions process. Haglund eased students’ fears about getting the school’s current counselor in “trouble” with their comments. He said he was the one in “trouble” because her lack of availability may be a time management issue he needs to resolve.

As the meeting came to an end, Haglund urged the Santa Ana High students to attend upcoming school board meetings to “look board members in the eye” to re-emphasize that the accountability plan is about students.

Castro said she appreciates that Haglund is open-minded and listens to her classmates rather than simply shoot down their ideas.

“It’s nice to feel like we have some say,” the 18-year-old said.

Karla Scoon Reid covers Southern California for EdSource.

John Fensterwald and Alex Gronke of EdSource Today, contributed to this report.

This report is part of EdSource’s Following the School Funding Formula project, tracking the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula in selected school districts around the state.

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