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Meet the new L.A. Unified student board member

Meet the new L.A. Unified student board member
Karen Calderon, an Alexander Hamilton High School senior, is the new student board member for the Los Angeles Unified School District. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

It’s hard to be an effective politician when your vote doesn’t even count.

Karen Calderon has a plan for that.

The newest Los Angeles Unified School District student board member — elected by other high school student leaders in the district — will have a voice at school board meetings. At 16, she will be able to put items on the agenda up for discussion at meetings, comment and vote. But her vote is just advisory, so it doesn’t factor into decision-making.

“That was something that really really concerned me,“ Karen said. “We don’t have the resources to truly analyze every single piece that goes before the board.” 

So she plans to dig into the issues she cares about — financial literacy, access to better drinking water, rigorous graduation standards — before board meetings. To make her voice count, she wants to talk to board members when they're making the decisions. It’s a strategy that Steve Zimmer, the (adult) board president himself, applauds.

“Karen senses that there are certain issues that seem to be decided before the meeting opens,” Zimmer said. “If the issue is important to her and whom she views as her constituents … I don’t think that Karen’s going to be shy about picking up the phone.”

The Alexander Hamilton High School senior is the second student board member in recent history, after thousands demanded a seat at the dais in a 2014 petition.

Karen senses that there are certain issues thatseem to be decided before the meeting opens.

— Steve Zimmer, L.A. Unified board president

The petition came from students in a civic leadership program through the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, who asked why they didn’t have more of a voice on the board, said Elmer Roldan, the nonprofit organization’s director of education programs and policy.

They found a state law that says that a student board position must be created if a certain number of students sign a petition asking a school district for one.

Though the prospect of representing those 650,000 voices is daunting, Karen has roots similar to a number of her peers. Karen’s parents are Salvadoran immigrants — her mother, a housekeeper for a family in the Pacific Palisades, stopped going to school after eighth grade to work in a candle factory; her dad stopped after second grade.

But Karen’s four older siblings have all graduated from high school and have either earned or are pursuing higher education degrees.

During the July 6 board meeting when she was sworn in, Karen thanked her mom, Marta Calderon, for giving her the strength to be successful.

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Marta came to the U.S. 33 years ago at age 19. She left her 5-month-old son with her mother until she could afford to bring him to Los Angeles a year later. Marta’s older brother fled the violence of El Salvador first, then brought his siblings to the U.S.

“She’s always told us her story … how much she wanted us to succeed,” Karen said, sitting next to her mother. 

When she was a little kid, Karen wanted to be a teacher, so her mom told her, “OK, teach,” she said. On vacations to visit family in El Salvador, Karen sat in the kitchen and pulled aunts and uncles in, creating impromptu English classes.

She’s assertive but informal, a combination that she thinks helped her get elected. While other candidates stood at the door to greet voters, Karen sat down and chatted with students at each table before telling them about her plans as a board member.

Some elements of her new duties make Karen nervous — she’ll take three advanced placement classes as a senior, including AP Calculus, and the schedule rotates so she won’t miss the same class every board meeting.

It’s not uncommon for school board meetings to run until 8 or 9 p.m., but Brenda Manuel, director of L.A. Unified’s student involvement, development and empowerment unit, said she tells student members to prioritize school and their health. 

Another challenge is the sheer size of her constituency compared to the rest of the board. The seven board members each represent a section of Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest school district in the nation. Karen will be part of the superintendent’s student advisory committee to hear other student concerns, and she’ll partner with board members to attend community forums, she said. 

Student board members also can’t attend closed-session meetings, which often go beyond their slated duration and include discussions and decisions involving personnel and litigation. That sometimes left the last student board member, Leon Popa, alone on the dais, missing French class. 

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Karen and Leon have talked a few times — every time, she said, he has told her to remember to enjoy being a student. In an interview with the district, Leon said, “the best advice I can give is to trust your own instincts when it comes to sharing ideas.”

Neither Zimmer nor board member Mónica García could point to a specific time when Leon’s comments swayed a board vote.

Garcia said the student voice is important, but there could be more effective ways to have input, like an entire student school board with representatives from every local district.

“[Karen] will get to walk outside … into the actual daylight,” board president Zimmer joked after Wednesday’s meeting ended at noon. “Don’t get used to that.”

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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