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‘I’ll make sure that they’re heard’: LAUSD’s new student board member outlines her priorities as the voice of 600,000

Taylor Swaak | September 9, 2019

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New L.A. Unified student board representative Frances Suavillo is sworn in on Sept. 3. (L.A. Unified)

High school senior Frances Suavillo has always believed education is a right and not a privilege.

She’s seen firsthand when it’s not. Born and raised in the Philippines until she was 9 years old, Suavillo saw deep-seated educational inequity in the Southeast Asian island country — how “money dictated who went to school and who didn’t,” she said. And in the years since she moved to the U.S. in 2010, that reality has only strengthened her resolve to lift and empower all students.

Suavillo, who attends Carson High School in Los Angeles, was sworn in Sept. 3 as L.A. Unified’s fifth student school board member since the board voted to revive student participation in 2014. Thirty-nine Associated Student Body representatives from 22 high schools across the district elected Suavillo to the seat in April, over six other finalists. She is replacing Class of 2019 graduate Tyler Okeke to represent more than 600,000 students: roughly 486,000 from traditional schools and more than 138,000 attending charters.

“At the end of the day, it all boils down to students,” Suavillo said. “The student board member gives that platform to students to take their own education into their own hands.”

Student representatives in L.A. Unified serve in an advisory role only, but can propose resolutions like any other member.

Former L.A. Unified student board member Okeke made waves in April, for example, when he brought a resolution asking the district to study whether it’s possible to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections. The resolution passed and is under review.

Suavillo doesn’t take the role lightly. Her first priority, she said, will be to ensure that the district is catering to and supporting English learners, who make up a quarter of the student body. Suavillo was an English learner for a year when she first enrolled in L.A. Unified nine years ago.

“I want to make sure that students have positive role models who look like them and who have had similar experiences,” she said. “I am excited about what is ahead.”

Frances Suavillo being sworn in on Sept.3. (L.A. Unified)

Student board members aren’t commonplace, especially at behemoth districts like L.A. Unified. At least four of the country’s 10 largest districts have a student board member, according to information available on their websites. The other three are all in Florida — Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Broward County Public Schools and the School District of Palm Beach County.

Suavillo chatted with The 74 this summer about her passions, aspirations, how she intends to connect with students, and her favorite Netflix binge. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

The 74: Tell me a bit about what education was like for you in the Philippines.

Suavillo: I was fortunate enough to go to a private school in the Philippines, but I know so many people who went through a public school education. And even in public school education, you had to pay for everything. Nothing was ever as acceptable as it is here in the United States.

What are your aspirations post-high school, and how does this position tie into that?

I’ve wanted to be a diplomat for so long. I want to be able to represent the country and help out with international affairs and public relations [mainly on immigration and education]. And being the student board member for L.A. Unified is a huge stepping stone for that future career goal. I’ll be able to improve my public speaking skills, be able to connect and network with different people that I’m not always exposed to. And that’s so important if I want to be able to make connections with people who are from completely different sides of the world.

Is your goal to go to college? Any top choices?

Yes. I want to be able to attend Harvard University, which is a big dream. I’m actually studying economics there right now; I’m in Boston for the summer. It gives me college credits, and can also qualify for high school credit.

Frances Suavillo on Harvard University’s campus this summer. (Frances Suavillo)

You’re going to be a new face for a lot of students. So in the spirit of that, what are some fun facts about you?

● Student group involvement: I’m part of the California Scholarship Federation [at Carson High School], and I’m also part of a club called Share the Love Club, which helps the homeless in the L.A. area. (Suavillo will remain president of both in 2019-20. She founded Share the Love).

● Favorite place to eat this summer: Cane’s Chicken Fingers. I’ve been wanting to try it and I put it off for so long, but I finally tried it in Boston and I’m in love with it.

● Favorite TV show on Netflix: I binge-watch Netflix seasons in a day. When the new Stranger Things came out, I was done in I think 14 hours.

● Favorite sport to play or watch: I’m a big fan of volleyball, especially high school volleyball for the Carson High team. The boy’s volleyball team is incredible — they won the city championship last season, and I’m so proud.

● Biggest role model: My great-great-aunt. She basically raised my dad in the Philippines and she helped raise us. She’s the reason why I am who I am today.

Tell me a little bit about your passion topics. What types of things can we expect to hear you talking about as a school board member?

I want to dedicate my time trying to help the English learner program, once being a part of it myself when I first moved to the United States. It’s very close to me. Even though [I was in the EL program] a short amount of time, it was my first real experience with the U.S. public school system, so my first memories tied in with the U.S. was the EL program.

What are you hoping to accomplish for English learners?

I want to help make sure that the EL program caters to what the EL students need in order to succeed.

One thing that I learned from current English learners is that [they] find it more beneficial for them to be included in regular English classes, rather than a class that is designed for English learners only. Being surrounded by people who speak the same language as they do gives them the incentive to continue to speak in their native tongue rather than practicing their English skills. It’s an idea that I want to bring up to the board.

● Read More: English learners in California remain at the bottom of state test scores with only a hint of progress — and it’s even worse in Los Angeles

What do your peers think about the current system, and what do they want you to focus on as a student board member?

Many of my friends who are now experiencing the college life, a lot of them come back and say that they feel like they are at a disadvantage — like they’re unprepared. I would like to bring that information to the board’s attention, to work to strengthen the college readiness programs that we already have through feedback from past L.A. Unified graduates. To see where our programs lack and where they need additional support to help students be college-ready.

I can say with confidence that I’ll make sure that they’re heard.

● Read More: Exclusive: Less than half of LAUSD’s Class of 2019 are on track to graduate eligible for California’s public universities

How do you intend to conduct outreach and make sure that — to the best of your ability— you have a sense of what the student body cares about?

I’m fortunate enough to have many resources for that. In L.A. Unified we have a Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, which includes students from both middle school and high school now. And they’re kind of my advisors as well. I know that I can come to them and have them give me their 100 percent honest opinion about certain topics and certain concepts that I may want to pursue and bring up to the board. There’s also the email for the student board member [], where people can email me their opinions and their concerns and I can always look through that and try to reach out to as many as I can. And of course I have my own peers in my own school and the schools surrounding me that are easily accessible to me.

You’re a high school student. You have homework, exams, college prep. What’s the time commitment of this job, and how do you intend to maintain life balance?

From what Tyler Okeke told me, it takes a lot of dedication, commitment and passion. So I expect it to take a lot of my time as well. But [district officials] always tell me that my education comes first, so they’ve let me know that I don’t have to stay for the whole duration of the meeting. I know it’s going to be difficult having to juggle being a high school senior with all of the academic pressures of your senior year, and all the social pressures of senior year as well, and now this being added on to my plate. But I know that I’m doing this for a reason. I’m not someone who would choose to do something and then not put in 110 percent effort.

(Reporter’s note: An end-of-year meeting on June 18 lasted a staggering eight hours. Typically, school board meetings are around four or five hours.)

What’s some of the best advice you’ve received from a student board member?

The biggest thing that Tyler told me that stuck with me is, “Speak from your heart and do things that you’re passionate about and that you can honestly say you’re proud to do.” I think he did a great job with that in his year, and I can only learn from him. He’s incredible, and he’s a friend now to me. He’s done nothing but support me and guide me through it.

Frances Suavillo with last year’s student board representative, Tyler Okeke. (L.A. Unified)

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