OAKLAND -- Unlike many California students advocating for the same platform, Oakland and Emeryville students will have a formal role in overseeing the new school funding law that provides more local control and promises transparency.
Last week both the Emeryville and Oakland school districts said that students will participate in the engagement process of the Local Control Funding Formula, which began this school year and is aimed at improving services for the most disadvantaged students. In the next couple of weeks, the school boards are reviewing and expected to vote on the policies.
"There is a commitment on a part of the school district that we include student voice in the decision-making," said John Rubio, superintendent of Emery Unified School District.
Emery Unified School District officials say it is the first to commit to creating a formal student advisory committee for the new funding system in which districts receive the same base grant and additional funds according to the number of high-needs students, defined as low-income, English learners and foster youths.
"Young people have told us loud and clear over and over that it's important for students to have a space to say what decisions are made and how dollars are spent. They are experts in their own reality, so they know what they need," said Aurora Lopez, student engagement liaison for Oakland Unified School District. "There's definitely the support for this to happen."
Advocates say that because Oakland Unified is such a large district, the board's support might influence other comparable districts that have argued it would restrict flexibility to create their own formal student groups.
"What we ask is that the LCAP Student Advisory Committee is a district policy so the Oakland Unified School District can be the model and leader for not just student voices in Oakland but all of California," Naudika Williams, 14, told the school board on Wednesday.
The school districts must adopt a financial Local Control and Accountability Plan that blueprints how the district will improve performance in accordance with state-set priorities.
Districts are required to solicit feedback with teachers, parents, students and the community and through advisory committees. However, although they are identified for consultation, some students say that their voices are going unheard.
The vague policy means that districts might do the least possible to engage with students, said Saa'un Bell, lead organizer for Californians for Justice, which has been working with students in Oakland.
"We spend eight hours a day in the classroom. There's no formal process to say that this is where the money should go. We know what's under-resourced. We know exactly what we need," said Cindy Andrade, 17. "The Oakland Unified School District makes decisions that directly affect us, but we haven't had a student voice for this."
Julie White, a spokeswoman for the State Board of Education, said that in July, the board will meet to determine if changes to the accountability plan regulations are necessary.
"There's more than a thousand school districts in the state, and this is an entirely brand-new process for community engagement in California," White said, adding that this means districts will use different approaches to gather feedback.
As part of an advocacy group representing 11 districts called the Student Voice Coalition, students from throughout California are campaigning to the State Board of Education for a defined role for student participation in the budgeting process, including Emeryville and Oakland students.
How Emeryville and Oakland's advisory committees will be structured is still a work in process. Currently, the drafts have high school student government leaders and school representatives sitting on the committees that report to their school boards. Both are exploring opportunities for the direct participation of middle school students.
Emeryville's draft is written in plain English instead of complex policy jargon so students can navigate the budget process with confidence, said Anakarita Allen, Emery Unified School District's director of curriculum and instruction.
"It is an opportunity for them to understand it so they're able to engage with their peers and so their peers can give informed recommendations and feedback to the LCAP, to the plan itself," Allen said.
West Contra Costa
In West Contra Costa Unified School District in Richmond, there is support from students, parents and community groups for a clearer accountability plan.
Although students representing each high school sit on the parent advisory committee for the LCAP, that environment is not student-friendly, according to Alizé Johnson, 15, a member of the committee.
She said that the proposals should be written more clearly for students and parents, many of whom are English language learners.
"It's kind of intimidating to speak at the meetings. It's hard to understand because sometimes the paperwork isn't student-friendly and uses a lot of big words," she said. "Having nine student representatives isn't enough. You have to ask the whole student body."
The school district wants to make sure that its students know they have a voice and has involved students from the beginning of the LCAP process, said spokesman Marcus Walton, adding that a student advisory committee would be explored if asked for.
"The superintendent is responding to all of the comments and concerns that have been raised by the community members, parents and students," he said. "Those responses are outlined and readily available on the district website."
Ireri Lora, a Student Voices Coalition organizer working with students at Richmond High School, said that there needs to be "authentic student engagement."
She said that Emeryville and Oakland's advisory committees could serve as models for how to better include student voices at West Contra Costa Unified School District.
"Richmond will have a view of what's possible," she said.