This coming school year, the Kern High School District will have a new face on the board, thanks to an effort by students to have their very own representative.
At this week's board meeting, a group of recent Centennial High graduates presented the board with their plan to elect a member who will represent the interests of the students in the district.
"We're a district of 40,000 students, but we’re not represented well," said one of those recent graduates, Salem Palmer.
On May 6, the students presented the board a petition representing the signatures of more than 500 students from across the district. Trustees asked questions but expressed broad support of the idea.
"I think having a student voice up here, representing students, will provide value to the district and us as a board," said board President Jeff Flores.
Flores vowed to work together on the particulars. Palmer said he hopes that when school is back in August, students can put in motion a plan to elect their representative.
Palmer learned students could serve on their local school boards at a conference he attended in 2019, thanks to the 2017 law co-authored by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who was then in the Assembly. High school students in Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento and other communities already had their own reps on their boards.
Under this law, student representatives are recognized as full board members, but their position is unique. They are given a preferential vote, which means their votes are recorded but don't contribute to the final vote tally. Student members also aren't allowed into closed sessions.
The idea of bringing a student voice to the Kern High School District board seemed intriguing in 2019.
"Then COVID hit, and priorities shifted," Palmer said.
But the pandemic made the need for a student representative seem more urgent to Palmer and his fellow Centennial classmates involved in Project Citizen, which helps students identify community issues and seek ways to fix them. These students felt like board members weren't in touch with the day-to-day reality of schools, he said.
Students didn't understand how decisions were being made, either. A survey from more than 1,300 students at 10 schools stated that 90.5 percent had no idea who served on the school board.
"The reality is that's very scary when you talk about student voice and student opinion being given," Centennial graduate Alison Poon told the board.
However, 78 percent of those same students supported putting a student representative on the board and only 1.9 percent were opposed.
"I think COVID really hit us hard," he said. "We needed a student to say, 'This is what’s happening in the classroom.'"
Doing the work of surveying students about what they wanted from a representative and gathering signatures wasn't easy during a pandemic. There were delays.
But on Monday, Centennial students presented their proposal to the board based on those surveys. It was also informed by conversations that the class had with students in San Diego Unified School District who had their own student representative. Thurmond also made an appearance in class.
"I believe that a student perspective helps to shape and strengthen policies being made to support students," Thurmond wrote in a statement to The Californian. "Student representation at the decision-making table puts student voice front and center where it needs to be in our schools."
Based on what they learned, students proposed a parliamentary model. Each school would elect a student on an advisory council. That council would elect the student representative to the board. They must meet certain criteria before running, such as having a certain GPA and being at least an incoming junior.
Besides attending meetings, the representative would have certain responsibilities to be in touch with their constituents. This may look like holding office hours on Zoom so that students can drop by with their concerns.
The next step for the students behind this effort is outreach. This will be a special election year for a completely new position.
But the students have received a warm reception not just from the board but from Superintendent Bryon Schaefer and teachers who passed out petitions. Now comes the work of hammering out the details.
"It’s a learning curve for us," Palmer said.