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L.A. Unified students want one of their own on school board

EducationStudentsLos Angeles Unified School DistrictPoliticsLos Angeles Board of EducationMaya Angelou

Bryan Mejia has some advice for the Los Angeles Board of Education.

He isn't a gadfly or political consultant. He isn't running for office — he can't even vote.

Mejia is a high school student. And he wants to help fix what he and other students see as the board's fundamental flaw: It is missing a voice it purports to represent.

"We should have representation where the decisions affecting our education are made," the 17-year-old said. "The school board."

The board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposal to allow a student advisory member on the board. The student, who would be elected by his or her peers, would not have actual voting power or be allowed in closed-session meetings. Instead, the student would provide guidance on issues and cast an advisory vote just before the official vote.

The advisory vote would be recorded in the meeting's minutes.

The resolution, introduced by board member Steve Zimmer, would also establish a Student Congress made up of two students from each high school that will consult student survey results to help guide decisions and priorities. The students, divided by their respective board districts, would also elect seven representatives that would report directly to board members.

"There could be substantive engagement around the issues most salient to their lives," Zimmer said. "I think that it will eventually feel unnatural not to have a student at the table."

Zimmer also envisions a districtwide curriculum that uses board meetings as a teaching tool, leading to discussions and lessons based on board action.

The board, however, isn't always exactly a model of civil democracy. It can be a fractious group, with meetings sometimes turning openly combative. Policy decisions are often ensnared by politics and infighting.

A student seated at the dais could help some of that, Zimmer said.

"It will make us behave better," Zimmer said. "I would pay a lot more attention to my tone, to my preparation and even to my posture knowing that I'm modeling behavior for someone who might aspire to this position someday."

The lack of a direct link to the board creates a feeling of helplessness among students, said Cindy Figueroa, a junior at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies.

"Nobody truly advocates for the students," she said. "Everyone want to make the situation better but I don't think they understand the situation in the first place."

Students, for example, could have foreseen security issues that marred the district's $1-billion iPad program, Mejia said.

He and his classmates at Maya Angelou Community High School in South Los Angeles were grateful for the board's decision last year to ban suspensions over "willful defiance," which has disproportionately affected minority students. Their input could have been helpful during the board's debate of the issue, Mejia said.

And students should help decide how money is spent under a new state funding formula. But many don't believe anyone cares what they think, said Mejia, who is student body president at his school.

"They think 'What's the point if they're not going to listen to us?'" Mejia said. "But they want to help."

L.A. Unified has had a student presence on the board in several incarnations over the years, said Jefferson Crain, the board's executive officer.

In the 1980s, the district had a student member elected by the student body presidents at each school. The district later moved to have the seat rotate among several elected students around the district. Most recently, the board had a dedicated portion of the agenda for students to make presentations on issues they wished to discuss, but that was done away with a few years ago, Crain said.

The board ran into some logistical issues. Providing transportation for students became complicated, meetings would drag on into the night, keeping students from their homework, Crain said.

The current school board often meets during the school day — already a point of contention among observers who see that as cutting public participation.

About 200 of the 500 unified and high school districts in California have a student representative on their boards, according to the California School Boards Assn. Other large districts, such as those in San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego all have student board members.

In Los Angeles, if the measure passes, the student would begin in the spring 2015 semester. Zimmer said he has yet to secure enough votes to pass the resolution. "I'm really hoping my colleagues will approve this," he said. "I hope we can be a model for how to best do this."

Mejia and Figueroa said they would be honored if their peers selected them for the seat.

"I would love to go for it. I would love to have the opportunity to speak directly to the board members before things are voted on," Figueroa said. "Those are the moments when they can be swayed one way to another — having a student on the board can really affect that."

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EducationStudentsLos Angeles Unified School DistrictPoliticsLos Angeles Board of EducationMaya Angelou
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