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How San Francisco’s Student Delegates Redefined What Youth Leadership Looks Like

It has been a turbulent year for the San Francisco school board in ways that its two student delegates could never have foreseen. As both delegates graduate this week, they leave behind a legacy of activism their peers say sets the bar for what it means to be a student leader.

Shavonne Hines-Foster, a Lowell senior, fought fiercely for Black students and called on administrators to do a better job confronting racism.

Her colleague, Kathya Correa Almanza, is graduating from June Jordan School for Equity. As a student delegate she advocated for transformational education for all students with poise and clarity.

That representation has been particularly important during a year when most students have been away from their schools and more isolated. Both students also had to learn how to navigate their role amidst adult debates over reopening of schools, offensive tweets and lawsuits, said Correa Almanza.

“I expected education to be this place where everyone agrees on what is right because it’s for the students,” Correa Almanza said. “San Francisco is divided in so many ways, you know, we have different neighborhoods, we have different incomes. But to see how [that] played out was something that surprised me a lot.”

Students Advocating for Their Communities

Correa Almanza’s experience prepared her for this role.  She was a high school debater, and over time, began using the power of her words for more than winning debate rounds. Her peers saw her as a leader, and pushed her to run for their student delegate. But she was nervous.

“This is a role where people wouldn’t expect to see a young Latina from a low income household [and] single mother,” Correa Almanza said. “People would not expect someone that identifies like me to be in this role. ”

She reached out to San Francisco Board of Education President Gabriella López, the youngest woman ever elected to office in San Francisco, to talk about how she was feeling. After that conversation, and winning the election, Correa Almanza remained unfazed even when hundreds of people often tuned in over Zoom for board meetings. She says she understood what she had to do to be a strong leader.

When Hines-Foster decided to run, she was thinking about her community.

Lowell Black Student Union co-president Shavonne Hines-Foster speaks during a rally held at Lowell High School on Feb. 5, 2021, to address recent racist incidents at the school. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“No one who looked like me had been on the seat in the past few years,” Hines-Foster said. “People put faith in me to lead with strength and compassion.”

She remembers how in elementary school her teacher didn’t have anything planned for Black History Month.

“So she actually told my mom, ‘You can do it yourself.’ So my mom had to give her own Black History lesson to my first grade class,” Hines-Foster said.

Finding Ways to Be Heard, In Spite of the Critics

On the school board, Hines-Foster called out racism and inaction. She advocated for a Black Studies curriculum, and for victims of sexual assault. But she said speaking out also led to threats online. 

“I think I often take up a lot of space that people don’t want me to take up space. But I think honestly, I kind of brush it off because these people don’t really have aren’t saying these things with their chests,” Hines-Foster said.

Even if people didn’t want to listen, Hines-Foster found ways to be heard. She kept her peers updated through posts and live streams on Instagram.

In February, Correa Almanza and Hines-Foster co-authored a resolution with other board members to end Lowell’s selective admissions policy based on grades and test scores. This year’s enrollment figures show that the policy change has made a difference. A greater percentage of Black and Hispanic students have been accepted into Lowell for the up-coming school year. 

“I was like, really, man, I hope these numbers come out good, because if [they don’t], I’m probably going to get roasted by my whole school,” Hines-Foster said. “Like, ‘You took away admissions and it didn’t even work!’ So I was like, ‘Please, please, let something change.’ So when the numbers came out, I was really happy.” 

Hines-Foster is also proud of her advocacy around bringing a Black Studies curriculum to the district. She and Correa Almanza co-sponsored a Black Studies resolution that gives every student in the district the chance to participate in Black Studies by the school year 2022-2023. They also both began drafting a Title IX resolution to improve the reporting process for students who experience harassment or assault.

Passing Off the Baton to the Next Student Leader

Now that Correa Almanza and Hines-Foster are graduating, they are handing the baton to next year’s student delegate, Joanna Lam. She’s Cambodian-American, the child of refugees, and says she has been advocating for other students since kindergarten when she was on the student council, organizing assemblies against LGBTQ plus bullying, and helping lead her school’s walkout against gun violence.

“I have young cousins who are in elementary school right now, and I want to make this district a place where they can grow up, and make their future overall better.

She does think the student delegates can make a difference, even if their votes are only advisory.

“The influence of student voice is questionable. But if you have people behind you with that voice, it’s something much more powerful,” Lam said.

Lam says she plans to continue using social media in creative ways to keep students engaged. On the final day of the student delegate election, Lam went on Instagram to dye her hair pink if more students voted.

She says next year, she’s focused on the reopening of schools in person, and making sure the district adequately supports students’ mental health needs. She hopes that someday, student delegates’ votes can be counted on the school board, too.

Copyright 2021 KQED