Alex Zhao is one of the more than 49,000 students in the Capistrano Unified School District, Orange County’s largest public school district.
But he has a job no other student attending the district’s 64 schools or programs has.
The Capistrano Valley High School senior is the one and only student board member on the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees. He applied for the position while a junior and was selected at the start of this school year.
It’s a big responsibility that Alex takes seriously.
“I feel like I'm always trying to represent … a very large population,” the teenager shared in a recent Zoom interview where he was enthusiastic about his role to speak on behalf of student interests on the board of trustees.
“It's kind of this job of listening to people, being able to understand what students are talking about, being involved actually in multiple school spheres or school corners,” he said and continued, “The comments that I give should reflect — it can't be 100% because it is never 100% — but it should reflect a majority, almost all students and what they're thinking.”
How does he achieve this lofty goal of representing a population bigger than some cities in O.C.? Some of the outreach is defined in his job description.
Last October, the seven-member CUSD Board of Trustees revised its policy regarding the role of its student board member, establishing channels for the representative to connect with fellow students.
Alex meets monthly with the presidents of the district’s six high school student leadership groups. These representatives also attend forums with other students and campus principals who then bring that information back to Alex.
Connecting with other students is something Alex said he truly enjoys.
“I get to talk to these students about their opinions, their perspectives and to learn about all these different aspects of school that, you know, maybe I wasn't necessarily as involved with before. So that's been super good,” Alex said.
Students also frequently approach him with a question or an idea, ranging from ways to increase inclusivity at a campus or how to host a blood drive. “It's always super, super great. I especially like to see students taking that initiative.”
Alex himself has taken the initiative to promote student participation at board meetings. Earlier this school year, with permission from the district, he launched an Instagram account after hearing others question what happens at a board meeting.
“The process of a board meeting is mysterious to students,” Alex explained and added, “I thought that's not a great thing.” He emphasized that students should be knowledgeable about how to interact with the system that is making decisions that impact them.
His first post was titled, “A Student’s Guide for How Board Meetings Work.” In part of the now-pinned post, Alex explains how to submit a public comment reminding students that their voice matters. “Sometimes, [board] agenda Items will directly impact students. This is why it is very important to know how to address the Board of Trustees if you would like to voice your opinions about certain Agenda Items,” he wrote. He’s also been posting reminders of board meetings and offering recaps in the days after.
Alex’s effort was praised by Meg Ervais, Ed.D., the Executive Director of Secondary Curriculum and Education for CUSD. “I thought it was a great idea,” Dr. Ervais said of the Instagram account during a recent phone interview.
“I think any outreach that he can do to loop in the other students and provide a conduit for sharing out information, also getting comments and feedback, is another layer of him representing a broader group of students,” she said.
Dr. Ervais works directly with student board members. She said Alex is very diligent about reviewing agenda items and preparing for meetings, often reaching out to her with questions. She stressed the importance of the position.
“I think it's really beneficial in the board meetings to have students’ voice because ultimately, that's who we serve. And so I think it keeps a focus on what is most important when we're making a variety of decisions. Everything from facilities to textbooks, to hiring. So just keeping in mind that at the end of the day, it's all about the students,” she said.
This week, the board discussed an issue that could potentially impact all students — changing requirements to participate in some extracurricular activities.
The policy revision on the April 19 board meeting agenda was proposed by trustee Gila Jones. She proposed removing the district’s current minimum 2.5-grade point average requirement for students to take part in some activities such as student leadership.
Jones argued the goal would be to increase student engagement.
“So how does restricting students with low grades from participating in school activities make them happy? How does it motivate them to get better grades? How does it motivate them to want to come to school? I don't believe it does. I believe students with low grades are precisely the ones who need to be encouraged to participate in activities,” Jones said at the April 19 meeting.
During the discussion on the item at the meeting, Alex asked questions and offered a student perspective of the potential impact of changing the policy. He shared that high school students can sometimes struggle to balance their academic and extracurricular workloads.
“Some people were so involved in extracurriculars and co-curriculars that they don't focus on academics anymore,” Alex said. He suggested that if a GPA requirement is removed, perhaps the district could establish another way to ensure students can be successful in the classroom and in other activities.
This marked the first reading of the proposal and it’s expected to come back before the board for a second reading at a later date.
When the proposal returns to the board for consideration, Alex will be able to cast a “preferential vote” on the issue. That means his vote won’t impact the final outcome, but according to Dr. Ervais, his vote does have the ability to influence trustees.
“[Alex] is definitely willing to share his view or a view he believes represents other students and he's an independent thinker. He's not just saying yes to the adults in the room. He is sharing thoughtful feedback to help them make the best decision,” Dr. Ervais said and added, “The trustees care what he has to say.”
Alex is encouraging other students to voice their opinions to trustees and said that has become one of his main goals of his job.
“It's to tell kids that you have a voice in … decision making at a district level and even if you're not in the [student board member] seat, there's still many mechanisms for you to speak up, and to kind of directly influence decisions and choices that are made at this level,” he said.
In addition to his role on the board, Alex is also a very active teenager. He is part of his school’s orchestra, involved in Model United Nations, International Baccalaureate program, and more, according to an article from CUSDInsider .
Alex plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania next year to study engineering. He said he will carry the lessons he’s learned serving as a student board member into the future.
“There's something powerful about being able to engineer change or to make change, design change. But there's also something equally powerful about knowing how to implement that change,” he said. “So this has really opened up my eyes. … I know how to navigate these systems now. So that's been really, really powerful to me.”