Courtesy of Oakland Unified School District
Gema Quetzal Cardenas, a student activist who attends the Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland Unified, is the student representative on the California Board of Education for 2018-19.

A notice I saw recently for the application deadline to become the student member of the State Board of Education took me back 35 years when I was a high school student.

Jeff Camp

Deciding to apply, as a high school junior, was what inspired my longstanding involvement in California’s education system. Representing 6.2 million students, this is the most powerful role a high school student can play in American government. It’s not an advisory position. It’s a full seat at the table in the room where it happens. Only California and Massachusetts have made this powerful commitment to including a student voice in education policy decision-making, one with full voting rights.

I applied for the position in 1983, the year that the landmark A Nation At Risk report was published, warning that a “rising tide of mediocrity” had taken over our schools. As part of the application process I vividly remember traveling to Sacramento to participate in the Student Advisory Board of Education (SABE), a conference where students discussed issues facing the real California State Board of Education. We met policymakers, learned from researchers and, not insignificantly, connected with each other. During the final session of the conference, we presented our recommendations to members of the State Board of Education.

I was not appointed to fill the student board position, but I have remained engaged in California education policy to this day. I created Ed100.org, an online primer that explains the basic workings of our states’ education system, because I believe Californians need an easy, objective way for anyone with an interest in our schools — including students — to understand how the system works.

The current student member of the California State Board of Education, Gema Q. Cardenas, attends high school at the Life Academy of Health and Bioscience in Oakland.

There’s only one student seat on the State Board. Fortunately, there are other ways for California high school students to become deeply involved in education leadership. For over 40 years, school districts have been required to appoint non-voting student representatives to their board, if a minimum of 500 high school students, or 10 percent of a district’s student body, sign a petition requesting that a student be appointed to its governing board.

Last year Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB486 into law, strengthening the roles of student members on local school boards and clarifying the meetings they can attend. The new law ensures that students receive the same meeting materials as other board members in time to prepare and have an influence.

School boards should embrace this new law as an opportunity to think afresh about what it means to involve students in the work of a district. What does it take to do it well?

Student representatives need time, support and training to prepare for their role effectively. For example, school boards need to make clear that they anticipate that student representatives will miss some school to participate in board work. Like other board members, student representatives need timely professional development opportunities such as student board member symposium events and regional conferences. They need time to meet with school leaders, parent leaders and district staff.

But even before they meet the criteria for serving on school boards, students should get involved in their school site councils or on PTSA boards. School leaders should guide students to get involved in these bodies as sophomores or earlier. Students who do great work in site councils and committees as freshmen or sophomores would be natural candidates to serve on their local school boards and perhaps even the State Board.

The student position on the State Board of Education is the state’s most prominent opportunity for a student to participate in improving school systems. Fortunately there are others. School boards should discuss their strategy for preparing students to join their work. Students should seize these opportunities to serve. It could change their lives. And California would be the beneficiary.

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Jeff Camp is the founder and primary author of Ed100.org, a free bilingual guide to California’s education system. 

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