Eighteen-year-old Rafael Ramirez hasn't been able to play his favorite "NBA Live" video game or hang out with friends much lately. Since he graduated from Hawthorne High School in June, Ramirez has been calling and visiting area voters, trying to persuade them to elect him to the Centinela Valley Union High School District board on Tuesday.
Ramirez, the son of migrant farmworkers, is enrolled at El Camino Community College with hopes of becoming a teacher. He is running against a 52-year-old adult-school teacher, Mario Chiappe, who is a former Centinela Valley school board trustee. Chiappe has made Ramirez's youth a campaign issue in the district, which has 6,700 students in three high schools and one continuation school in Hawthorne, Lawndale and Lennox.
The Centinela Valley Secondary Teachers Assn. is backing Ramirez, despite his lack of political experience.
"Rafael will change the perspective of the school board because he knows what teachers mean to education," said Scott McVarish, a union leader. "We're trying to elect school board members who will work with teachers, parents and students to solve all of our problems."
Chiappe, a teacher in the Compton Unified School District and father of two adult children, called his opponent a "handpicked candidate by the union" who is not "mentally qualified to be able to debate on his own."
"He should be worried about going to school and getting good grades, and probably getting a part-time job so he can start paying taxes," Chiappe said. "Eighteen years of age in my view is way too young.... You need to have experience for that position."
Chiappe, who moved to Hawthorne from Chile 30 years ago, served on the Centinela Valley school board from 1993 to 1997. He served on a local planning commission and was employed as a social worker. Now, he teaches adult school and General Education Development courses in Compton. If elected, he said, he wants to relieve overcrowding, increase test scores and improve teacher salaries and benefits.
Ramirez's electoral effort at such a young age is rare but not unheard of. For example, 20-year-old Dylan Loewe, a UCLA student and deputy to a Calabasas city councilman, is running for a seat on the Las Virgenes Unified School District board. An 18-year-old was elected to the Ohio Legislature three years ago.
In the Centinela Valley district, two of the five board seats are on the ballot. Middle school counselor Jorge Arroyo, 36, is running against incumbent Ernie Chacon, 61, for the second seat.
Most of the district's students come from low-income immigrant families. Though test scores in the district's high schools have improved slightly, they remain low.
Ramirez said he is qualified because he relates to students and understands their challenges. As a student, his classrooms were packed with more than 40 pupils, he said. Sometimes there were not enough books. Air-conditioners and drinking fountains often broke down. Students need more vocational and college preparatory classes, he said.
"I know I'm 18, and I still have a lot to learn," Ramirez said. "But I'm enthusiastic and dedicated."
Candidates must be at least 18 and eligible to vote to run for a school board position in California. Ramirez voted for the first time last month, during the recall election.
Ramirez was born in Uzeta, Mexico, and his family moved to Hawthorne when he was a year old. Ramirez was sent to the fields at age 11 to pick tomatoes because "my parents wanted me to feel and experience how money was earned the hard way."
In high school, he tutored students and founded Club Ed for young people interested in careers in education. He hopes to attend USC.