Santa Cruz COE steps up for student board members
Youth leadership programs help shape a new generation of leaders
five diverse students of high school age holding clipboards and paperwork group together for photo near an office table
A recent study conducted at the University of California, Santa Cruz, examined student trustee participation in board of education meetings in the county and offered a series of recommendations to increase student trustee participation in meaningful ways.

CSBA’s fact sheet on student participation on boards of education ( notes that the presence of student board members can “enable governance teams to incorporate student voices in their district responsibilities, elevating student perspectives on education policy decisions that they may not have otherwise considered.” In addition to making valuable contributions to policy discussions based on their experience, student members “get the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the governance process of their district, learn essential democratic skills, and represent and advocate for their peers.”

While many local educational agencies have the best intentions to incorporate student voice through a student trustee position, the LEAs evaluated in the study often fell short. The study found that student trustees have limited participation in most board meetings and were often relegated to simply giving reports of school-based activities.

To address this issue and improve the knowledge and confidence of student trustees, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education launched its School Board Academy for Students in summer 2022 with the goal of helping students understand how school boards function and training them on how to serve on boards.

“We were aware that students were often struggling with the ability to be able to successfully participate in board meetings,” said Santa Cruz COE Superintendent Faris Sabbah. “We felt that often their participation was more of giving a report of school-based activities, including sports and not necessarily playing an active role in the decision-making process that school boards partake in when it comes to policy. We set out to create an interactive, engaging, fun space for students to learn over the summer.”

The training consists of six sessions to learn about the role and responsibilities of a school board, including the Brown Act, Robert’s Rule of Order/Procedure, public speaking, ethics, how the school system works and how school budgets work. The academy includes the opportunity to present to the Santa Cruz COE board.

“One of the first things we talk about is democracy and the school board, and how the school board is elected, and their authority comes from, the community,” Sabbah said. “Representation on a school board means bringing the voice of the students — who are those most impacted by the policies, practices and programs that are being put in place. If there is an intergenerational gap between the representatives and the students, we want to close that gap by having student representation at the table. They also help remind us of why we do the work that we do.”

“A lot of what I do is to pay it forward because it’s in these spaces that youth get more confident and learn to step into those uncomfortable spaces…I’m really trying to shift a culture.”
Marlize Velasco, trustee and 2021 graduate from Live Oak Unified School District
The administrative team behind the academy is sharing the UC Santa Cruz study with its participants so they can reflect on the research and recommendations.
Study findings
The study analyzed more than 100 hours of board of education meetings in Santa Cruz County. “Our central finding was that youth speak during public comment and their official designated reports, however, they almost never speak beyond these two designated periods in the agenda,” the report states. The authors found that, when given the opportunity, student representatives engage meaningfully, but it requires effort from the adult trustees. “In carefully reviewing the over 100 hours of board meetings, we encountered zero instances of adult board members directly asking student board members for their input on agenda items, even when the board was discussing issues of direct student concern,” according to the report. Researchers also found that adult responses to student voice were less meaningful than their responses to adult voice.

In order to increase meaningful student trustee participation, the report recommends consistently using the student’s right to preferential voting as part of every agenda item, developing a regular practice of asking for the student trustee’s input on each agenda item, encouraging mentoring relationships with other board members, and training and support for student board members.

Training and support
In addition to regional training and support programs like Santa Cruz COE’s Student Board Member Academy, CSBA offers a one-day student board member training program at its Annual Education Conference and Trade Show, and will be offering more student trustee-centered trainings in 2024.

Providing these early opportunities for training and understanding how a governance team functions can pay dividends when informed young graduates make the leap to board leadership. Marlize Velasco, a 2021 graduate from Live Oak Unified School District, where she now serves as a trustee, participated in Santa Cruz COE student leadership programs (prior to the creation the academy) and found a passion for encouraging other youth to share their voices. She also serves as a co-facilitator for the academy.

“I learned a lot of leadership skills from the leadership programs the county offered,” Velasco said. “They really hone in on what it means to be a leader — these versatile skills. A lot of what I do is to pay it forward because it’s in these spaces that youth get more confident and learn to step into those uncomfortable spaces that usually don’t have that youth representation. So, I’m really trying to shift a culture.”

For more on Santa Cruz COE’s network of student leadership and engagement offerings, visit