Northgate senior becomes first student school board member

Michelle Alas brings first student voice to body


Lily Struempf, Northgate High School

Northgate’s Michelle Alas is the first student representative to be on the Mount Diablo Unified School District Board.

Social rights activist, politician, philanthropist, and the former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” 

Education gives knowledge and teaches people about the world by giving students new perspectives. It also equips young minds with the tools they need to excel at life. It nurtures and guides people and bolsters their growth and development as a person. 

The Mount Diablo Unified District board members make it their priority to make the best decisions for all the 36,000-plus district students. Implementing state laws at a local level and making decisive decisions such as when school reopenings should take place and how are some of their highest duties. They strive to give students the best education possible, while keeping them safe and healthy. 

There are five adult board members and as of this year there is – for the first time in the more than 70 years of the board’s existence – a student member.

Michelle Alas is a senior at Northgate High School and the first-ever student to be selected as a board member of the Mount Diablo Unified District.

I think having a student on the board is long overdue,” Northgate’s Principal Kelly Cooper said. “While the board made a solid effort of including student voices through reports and reps in the past years, this brings the student voice to the conversation around all important decision making, and that is a great step in the right direction.” 

When asked about her incentives and why she wanted to be a part of the district board, Alas enthusiastically explained how she sees the opportunity “as an avenue for students to say what they needed, because right now, there are adults making decisions about our health and our safety, and having a student on the board would be a direct reminder that every decision made on the board affects us.”

She then went on to say how the “fact that there weren’t already any students on the board was kind of appalling” because they were being “excluded from the levels of important decision making” of which they are the “direct constituents.”

Alas got the idea of becoming a member of the board over the summer and she did some research on how she could get in that position. She learned that according to California State Education Code 35012, “(1) There may be submitted to the governing board of a school district maintaining one or more high schools a pupil petition requesting the governing board to appoint one or more pupil members to the governing board pursuant to this section. (2) The petition shall contain the signatures of either (A) not less than 500 pupils regularly enrolled in high schools of the school district, or (B) not less than 10 percent of the number of pupils regularly enrolled in high schools of the school district, whichever is less.” 

If a student petitions to be a member of the board and gets over 500 signatures of students from that district, then a student can be appointed to the governing board of a school district. Alas petitioned and got over 1,300 signatures over the span of eight days. 

The student on the board will have a similar role and influence as the other governing adult board members. The one exception is that when a vote is called for an issue or topic, the student’s vote occurs before the rest of the five board members and is “preferential”, a symbolic or guiding position, and not binding or counted as part of the final outcome. 

Alas is the first student board member since the founding of the district in 1948. However, students have represented other districts. Some examples of other school district boards with one or more students on the board include Acalanes Unified School District, San Diego Unified School District, Sacramento City Unified School District, Los Angeles Unified School District, and the Albany Unified School District.

After successfully petitioning the board to allow a student position, Alas then applied for the position and was selected unanimously. Brian Lawrence, president of the board, had no hesitation when asked what convinced him to accept Alas onto the board and why he thought that she would be right for the position.

Michelle is very knowledgeable, thoughtful and articulate with a passion for helping her fellow students and for improving education,” Lawrence said. He added that he is “delighted to have a student on the board” and that it will bring great perspective from a student’s point of view. 

Similarly, Principal Cooper has high praises for Alas. “Michelle is an outstanding selection for this position,” Cooper said. “She is thoughtful, not afraid to advocate and speak up in opposition when required, and she has dedicated much of her free time to learning about school policy and issues that affect schools from a grander perspective, so that she truly can contribute effectively and legitimately to any conversation. She is articulate and involved, and we are so proud that she is a Bronco!”

Alas is no stranger to leadership. She is an active member and leader in numerous Northgate activities including serving as a president for Model United Nations and the National Honor Society, as Co-Captain of the Debate Team, Cross Country and Track and Field, as a mentor for Link Crew and as a member of Sports Medicine. In 2019, she served as a student member on the California State Board of education, one of three finalists.

She has many goals to better the community and the education of the district. She describes her role on the board to “represent all the students in the district, engage in conversation with the staff, engage in conversation with the board members, listen to the public and provide a student’s perspective on all the issues the board decides on.” 

The district includes more than 50 elementary, middle, high and alternative schools in Concord, Pleasant Hill, Clayton, Walnut Creek, Bay Point, and some of unincorporated Martinez and Lafayette. In addition to Lawrence, the board includes Vice President Debra Mason, Joanne Durkee, Linda Mayo and Cherise Khaund. Lawrence and Durkee’s terms expire this year and they are not seeking reelection. On Nov. 3, voters elected newcomers Keisha Nzewi and Erin McFerrin.

Looking to the future, Alas describes an “utmost importance” to curtail the “big socioeconomic divide” in the district where “some schools are on one end of the socioeconomic spectrum and there are other schools on the other side of the socioeconomic spectrum, and that alienates the students from each other.”

She wants to help minimize the gap, give all students the best opportunities and connect them with one another instead of estranging them further.

“One of my goals,” says Alas, “is to have intradistrict student town halls– virtually of course — where students can talk directly with the governing board member, that being me, and may express any grievances they may have.” 

Examples she mentioned include if some students don’t feel sufficient communication with teachers or if they don’t feel involved enough in school, especially during distance learning, or if they have questions about the grading policies.

She explained how there are certain task forces that some board members, staff, community members, and teachers are on, but there are not students on them even though they can be. 

“I also want to involve students more in the decision-making process within the board itself,” she explained. The opportunities have just not been advertised enough for students to actually get really involved, she said, which is why she wants to open an avenue allowing students to know that if they wanted to be a part of any of the task forces, such as the reopening task force, social emotional learning task force, or other things such as the LCAP committee (Local Control and Accountability Plan), they can. 

She thinks that “involving students in decision making processes of the board, making students aware of opportunities there” is very important. Furthermore, she is hoping to involve herself “in inclusivity work, social justice work, expanding our curriculum, and expanding opportunities for students” more in the future. 

Michelle Alas has opened up new doors and opportunities for all the students of the Mount Diablo Unified School District and will help raise the voices of the students. She adds that if anyone would like to contact her and express concerns, they should contact her through email: Michelle Alas  – [email protected]

She worked hard, did her research and accomplished something that no one in the district has done before, thus building up the community and the education system in many beneficial ways. She has “taken the initiative and set a precedent for years to come,” she says, “because this position, it starts with me, but it’s going to continue for a very long time.”