Attention, High School Juniors!

by Brenna Pangelinan | September 16, 2019 | 0 Comments
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Making Student Leadership Real

A deadline is fast approaching that ambitious high school juniors need to know about: the application date for the student member position on the California State Board of Education. Representing 6.2 million students, this is the most powerful role that a high school student can play in California government, and perhaps in American government. It's not an advisory position — it's a full seat at the table in the room where it happens.

Next year, the job could be yours — but only if your application arrives by October 10. Do it.

This year, I'm honored to be serving in this role. Next year, the job could be yours — but only if you apply. Do it. Even if you don't get the position, the application process alone provides countless opportunities to help your community and to grow as an individual. After applying, you begin to think more critically about the education system you are a part of and how you can better the lives of students around you.

I first got involved in leadership in the California education system as a junior, serving as the Student Representative on the board of Sweetwater Union High School District. I cannot stress enough the value of this experience and the importance of student voice.

Apply now to represent 6.2 million students.

The more people who take interest in speaking up for better education in California, the more we will grow as a state. Our 6.2 million students have many perspectives that need to be heard and considered. A state with such diversity demands an education system that values every student’s talents and needs. This is my main priority going into this year as the student member of the State Board of Education.

Time for Stronger Student Voices

My predecessor, Gema Quetzal Cardenas (now at Stanford) has helped me understand how distantly the voices of students are heard in California. It doesn't have to be that way. The student position on the State Board is far from the only formal role for student representation, at least on paper. There are more than 450 school districts in California that include students in grades 9-12. Every one of them should have a student representative on its board.

But do they? There's no way to know. School boards list adult members on their website, but very few list their student representative. There is no straightforward way for student reps to find one another, much less connect and learn from one another.

Gema put it well: "In a huge state with a lot of diversity, it is important that we have young people involved in decision making. Students are the first ones to feel the impact."

Effectively preparing student leaders for a seat at the table in 450+ California school districts will require a much better, bigger approach. Michaela Klein Weinstein, a student representative in Albany Unified School District, has pointed out a natural recruiting funnel that could and should be made more powerful. Each school is supposed to include students in its site council. She suggests that the students on site councils ought to be seated as freshmen and sophomores to intentionally create a talent pipeline: as juniors and seniors they can be well-prepared to serve as members of school boards, county boards, and regional PTA boards.

How to Apply for the State Board Position

To be eligible for the student position on the State Board of Education, you need to be an 11th grade student enrolled in a California public school (traditional or charter).

Get three letters of recommendation, now.

To be a contender, you need to act right now. Complete the application and print it. You need to include three letters of recommendation together with your application. (This is different from how college applications work.) You'll need a big envelope, and enough stamps. It must be received by October 10, 2019, so you should drop it in the mail by about October 7 to allow time for delivery delays. The address is on the bottom of page 4 of the application.

You need to leave time for people to write recommendations, print them and give them to you. Time will fly, so start now.

How to Prepare

This is an important job, and there's a lot to know. Some speed-reading is in order. The lessons on are the fastest way to learn about the education system, broadly and quickly, so sign up and at least skim through them all. Earn your certificate as an Ed100 graduate and remember to include it on your resume. Visit, the state's de facto news source of record for education — it can give you a deeper understanding of issues that are currently abuzz.

You should plan to attend the SABE conference November 3-6 in Sacramento. The State Board of Education will cover your travel costs if you advance to the next step as a candidate for the position, so it might cost nothing to try. Even if you don't advance as a candidate, if you can make it to the conference you will find it inspiring and informative. (Sophomores: take note!)

And of course you should examine the website of the State Board of Education. Watch some video footage of the meetings. Read the agenda. Sign up for emails. Browse the meeting materials — members of the Board have a lot of homework for each meeting.

Join Your School Board

The student position on the State Board of Education is not the only opportunity for high school students to become authentically involved in education leadership. Since 2018, California law has required school districts to include a student member on their board, if petitioned by enough students. Before you start a petition for your district, do your homework. You will want to make sure the measure is well-crafted. For example, the student representative will need to have access to the meetings and documents necessary to participate successfully.

Student leaders in California are strangely isolated from one another. There is no statewide roster of student representatives, for example, or even a survey of which district boards have student representation. Few school districts list their student representative on their web page.

This is a critical challenge. A summary of student representation in each California school district is essential for creating new student board member positions, helping connect and prepare existing student board members, and keeping districts accountable to listen to student voice. It's also an opportunity for any students willing to dedicate some time to research. If you want to document your district's student representation please consider adding information to this list. (Want to take over development of this list as a leadership project? Just ask! The benefits would drastically improve student representation.)

Regional conferences for student members of district and county school boards are held at the beginning of the school year in some places. There are still seats available in some of them, if you act quickly.

More Ways to Lead

In addition to the SABE conference (early November), you might want to attend SABLE, a legislative conference for student leaders held in Sacramento January 13-15, 2020. This conference builds on the work begun at the SABE conference, but focuses on the legislative process. These conferences are a fascinating way to learn about real government at an entirely different level. Though targeted at juniors and seniors, sophomores who attend these conferences emerge with ideas and connections that prepare them to have an impact far beyond their own school.

School site councils are an important part of local school governance, and these are meant to include student members. Ask your principal.

Many PTA organizations are actually PTSAs — the "S" stands for "Students." These organizations create opportunities for student leadership and governance at the school site level and beyond. The California State PTA Board of Managers is an example of a PTA organization that involves students in its governance.

CASC and CASL are two organizations that organize student leadership training programs and events including summer leadership programs. Other youth organizations that support student involvement in civics include YMCA and Junior State.

Determination Required

It can be challenging for students to get involved in real government for a simple reason: real work happens on school days and during school hours. To get involved in real leadership, you'll have to miss some school. Education-related conferences, events and meetings fit well within the state guidelines for an excusable absence, but you'll need to obtain permission to miss school and make up the school work you miss.

Be aware that your school's reflexive answer when you ask for an excused absence may be to say no. There are many reasons, including a financial one: when you miss a day of school, even with permission, your school district foregoes about $75 in funding. It helps to be proactive and make sure you are communicating with your schools.

Know of any other real government roles for high school students? Add a comment to this post!

Please help spread the word quickly about the student position on the State Board. California's students deserve great representation.

— Brenna Pangelinan, with Gema Quetzal Cardenas and Michaela Klein Weinstein.

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