A student representative returns to LA Unified school board
Mike Szymanski | January 14, 2016
At the first LA Unified school board meeting of the year on Tuesday, Leon Popa found himself sitting through a long, grueling ordeal.
“Leon Popa has now spent more time at this meeting than he did all day at school,” said school board President Steve Zimmer. And that was only halfway through a meeting that started at 1:30 pm and last until 11 o’clock.
Popa is the board’s newest member, a 16-year-old junior and math whiz at the STEM Academy at Bernstein High School, who was selected from among six students to become the student representative on the seven-member board. He votes on any issue before the board in an “advisory” capacity.
Popa left the meeting around 8 p.m., ostensibly to do homework, but not before he was called upon to discuss the school calendar issue and explain what some of his student peers prefer, a mid-August start.
“I have the passion and will to help all students claim the education they need and deserve,” he said about his role on the board. “I want all students to have their voices heard. I am confident in my ability to listen and represent all students – English-learners, gifted and students living in poverty.”
With his mother, Dorina Popa, a medieval studies teacher, sitting in the front row of the meeting room and Zimmer at his side, Leon was sworn in by the board’s executive officer, Jefferson Crain. Popa will serve a one-year, unpaid term and will participate in discussions, but will not attend closed sessions or have access to confidential materials.
Popa’s father died of cancer in 2012, and he wrote about it, saying how totally lost he felt. “My father was the most noble person I ever knew, and he was not just my dad, but also my best friend. He gave me advice, nurtured my learning, stood up for me when I wasn’t ready. When he died, I was caught unready, and I struggled to recover what I thought to be my previous identity.”
He credits his love of art and math to his parents, who emigrated from Romania. He is president of his school’s Chess Club, takes Advanced Placement courses and is part of the Kaiser Permanent Mentoring Program. And, he likes to impersonate Star Wars characters and has a whole YouTube channel featuring them. He views himself more an aspiring actor, than aspiring politician, but said, “I believe I am prepared for this duty because I have experienced similar hardships my fellow LAUSD students face everyday.”
Popa is not the first student to join the board. At one point, three high schoolers served for six weeks at a time, so that each high school had a chance for input for three meetings each year. They then had a regular spot on the agenda called “Student Concerns,” to make presentations. But that was decades ago.
More than 3,000 students signed a petition last year asking for a return to student representation on the board. The state California Education Code allows at least one nonvoting student member to be elected or appointed to a school district’s governing board. An election was held in high schools throughout LAUSD with five other candidates. Taylor Hanes, a senior at Verdugo Hills High School, was chosen as the student alternate on the board.
Zimmer said, “This is an important and significant moment for Los Angeles. The student voice finally has its proper place in the dialogue about the policy decisions that affect the lives of our students. As the late, great David Bowie wrote, ‘And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations, they’re quite aware of what they’re going through.’ ”
Board member Mónica Garcia added, “LAUSD is here to serve the needs of our students, and we must include their voice at the table where decisions are made. This is a great step toward building a Student Board of Education to represent the interests of more than 600,000 of their peers.”
Ref Rodriguez, who represents the district where Popa goes to school, welcomed the new voice, saying, “The election of our student board member is monumental. For too long now, we have lacked student voice on this board, and I am eager to work collaboratively with Mr. Popa to move the needle for all students in our district.”
State Sen. Holly Mitchell congratulated Popa on his election win and said she ran for office on the school student body. “Leadership is a skill you will always use. I’m very proud of you, at this time in your lives,” she said. “You have an awesome responsibility to represent all the students in LAUSD. That’s huge.”