‘Our voices should matter in the present as well as in the future’: Academy trains high school students to participate in board meetings

Soquel High School senior Lynda Otero.
(Via Lynda Otero)

The Santa Cruz County Office of Education launched a School Board Academy for Students this past summer with the aim of helping students understand how school boards function and training them on how to serve on boards as student trustees. Students and COE officials shared what they learned with Lookout.

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Santa Cruz High School student body president Greta Mitchell knows what it takes to be president and what is expected of her.

Generally, she said, she represents the needs and wants of her peers and oversees planning for school events.

Still, she, like 11 other students from area high schools, wanted to learn more about how the public school system works. These students participated in a School Board Academy for Students, hosted by the Santa Cruz County Office of Education (COE), which aims to teach students how school boards work and train them to become student trustees.

The inaugural academy started the last week of July and had its last meeting on Aug. 18. The COE plans to host it next summer as well.

Half of the students that participated in the academy are student trustees who represent students on local school boards.

This year, Pajaro Valley Unified School District, Santa Cruz City Schools, Scotts Valley Unified School District and Happy Valley School District have student trustees, and other districts are looking into adding the position as well, according to COE spokesperson Nick Ibarra. In addition, San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District has a “high school board representative.” At its September meeting, the Santa Cruz County Board of Education is scheduled to vote on whether to add a student trustee position to its board.

“I honestly had no idea how school boards work at all,” said Mitchell. “Or even what the Brown Act was ... I knew a little bit of Robert’s Rules of Order.

Co-led by the COE’s student leadership and engagement coordinator, Celeste Gutierrez, and County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah, the four-week academy focused on helping students better understand how school district governance works, teaching them how to make their voices heard and helping them become student trustees. Middle school and high school students can participate in the academy.

Student trustees present reports on student activities and can vote on items at school board meetings, but their vote is used only for guidance for the board’s consideration. Gutierrez and Sabbah hope the academy will increase interest in the role and help students train to become trustees.

“Most people, when you see something happening, you’re like, ‘I want to do something about it,’” said Gutierrez. “‘I want to do something about it, but I don’t know how,’ and I think this process was really them understanding, ‘This is how you do it.’”

Starting at the end of July, 12 students met once a week for three hours, for four weeks, at Delta Charter High School on the Cabrillo College campus, where they learned about everything from ethics to how public school systems function. They dived into the role of school boards, learned about the Brown Act and Robert’s Rule of Order, and developed public speaking skills.

During their final session, the students presented what they learned to Santa Cruz County Board of Education members. They also advocated for issues that directly affect them at their schools.

Gutierrez and Sabbah had heard from students who attended school board meetings that they would speak up about an issue but nothing would change. Teaching the students about how a democracy works was an essential part of the program.

“We started with the importance of understanding that democracy requires representation and representation comes from the school board — which comes from the people who elect you into those positions,” said Sabbah.

Students in the group came from Salinas High, Watsonville High, Soquel High, Santa Cruz High, Pacific Collegiate School and Harbor High. Soquel High senior Lynda Otero is one of the six student trustees who participated in the academy.

After serving in leadership roles her junior year, she decided to take a shot at becoming a student trustee. She and more than 10 other high school students from Santa Cruz City Schools answered questions in front of a panel of judges including Sabbah and school administrators.

They selected one student from each high school. Once Otero earned the position in the spring, she signed up for the academy to train for her new role.

One of the highlights of the program for Otero was learning about the Brown Act and how school boards have to adhere to it with the specific aim of giving the public the ability to attend and participate in meetings. The Brown Act became law in 1953 and established rules for public bodies such as city councils and school boards to hold meetings in public.

“We had a lawyer come in, and she explained a little bit about education law and her role in helping the school boards because boards get sued a lot,” said Otero. “And as someone who wanted to go into law, I didn’t know that this was a branch that was available — education law. So I’ve started to look into it a little bit more. And I really liked it and it was really cool.”

As a first-generation student of parents from El Salvador, Otero hopes as part of her work as a trustee to focus on closing achievement gaps at her school. She is also advocating for more mental health support for students — something she commented on during the Santa Cruz City Schools board meeting Aug. 17.

“Our voices should matter in the present as well as in the future,” said Otero.

Given the success of the program, the County Office of Education is now planning a second year of the school board academy next summer; applications will be open to middle and high school students in Santa Cruz or Monterey counties. The COE will launch a website for the academy before applications for the program reopen next spring. Information about the academy will also be shared via the COE website and newsletter and through individual school districts’ communications.