Courtesy of Arleen Kennedy Dr. Arleen Kennedy, superintendent of the Balsz School District in Phoenix.
Courtesy of Arleen Kennedy

The Balsz School District joins at least two other Arizona school districts who give students a voice on school board decisions.

Cesar Aguilar was born and raised in the Balsz School District where his mother was a teacher.

So, when Aguilar was elected to the district’s governing board, his proposal to bring a student representative on the board had history behind it.

“I didn’t know what the school board was. I had never been to a school board meeting until I ended up running for the school board,” he said. 

That proposal became a reality last week when the Balsz district approved a measure to have a student representative from the district join the board as a non-voting member.

The student will be a 7th or 8th grade class president or vice president who serves for a semester on the board, giving feedback to the board, and advocating for other students, according to Balsz Superintendent Dr. Arleen Kennedy

The district will begin working with the class president at Tillman Middle School next month to set expectations for their role and to train other students for how the process works, she said.

Kennedy said the move will allow students to better understand their civic responsibility while advocating for their needs to adults in decision-making positions.

“Students have to have the opportunity to say to you, not necessarily how to teach them, but how the teaching has impacted them,” Kennedy said. “What they can do is come into a board meeting and sit up at that dais and feel as though they’re a part of the process.”

Balsz School District Governing Board Member Cesar Aguilar. Aguilar was born and raised in the district, where his mother was a teacher.
Courtesy of Cesar Aguilar

Student Perspective Needed in Turbulent Times

Kennedy was born in the late stages of the Civil Rights movement and remembers going to her social studies classes with questions. “Can you tell me how we can make the laws work for us?” she would ask.

Today, as society has turned away from civic education, she says students don’t always grasp their role in society like they once did.

“We have walked away from civic learning and civic education,” she said. “At Balsz, we’re trying to return to that.”

Aguilar recalls having conversations when he was a student in the district about dress codes and being confused when certain hats, colors, or clothing brands were affiliated with being part of a gang.

“I don’t think that board at that time or teachers or anyone ever asked the students, ‘What do you think about this dress code?’” he recalled. “That’s why I really believe in having these students here.”

Now, Kennedy says a student perspective will be even more important, in a time where school districts are having to make decisions about school closures, mental health supports, and health and safety during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It’s not safe to assume that we live in a society today where children are just seen and not heard,” she said. “Some of them have things to say. A lot of them have things to say.”

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Precedent for Student Representatives

There’s precedent for having students weigh in on decisions that impact them at school.

Mesa Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, moved to have student representatives on its board for the 2019-2020 school year, although the program has been on hold during the pandemic, according to a MPS spokesperson. The Tanque Verde Unified School District just outside Tucson currently has two student board members, according to its website.

Kennedy, who has worked in districts across the country, said she’s seen student representatives in action on school boards.

She referenced the National Youth Court Center in Kentucky, where students had a say in what consequences their fellow students should face for breaking rules.

“You’ll find students are more aware of what other students need, as well as consequences for other students’ actions,” she said.

And more districts are seeing young people step into leadership roles.

Armando Montero, a student at Arizona State University, was elected to the Tempe Union High School Board last year at 19 years old. A recent graduate of the district where he now serves on the board, Montero ran on a platform of being familiar with issues that students care about, and having a fresh perspective for solving those problems.

Aguilar, who says he mentored Montero and encouraged him to run for office, said bringing students into school board discussions will hopefully simplify a lot of issues and take politicking out of school board decisions.

“If you ask a student in any school, they know when something isn’t right,” Aguilar said. “Young people really bring back truth to the work we do.”

Reach the reporter at lorraine@couriernewsroom.com or 480-243-4086.