Arlene Perez grew up as a first-generation English language learner student in Pico Rivera, CA, where she was elected to serve as a board member on the El Rancho Unified School Board beginning December 2020. Perez’s family expected her to attend college, despite the obstacles she faced as the daughter of immigrant parents.
As she rose through the Pico Rivera school system, Perez found support through teacher advocates and resources for English language learner students. Now that she’s a school board member, she wants to ensure that students from similar backgrounds have even better access to STEM programs and other resources.
Arlene sat down with Director of Policy & Community Impact, Erin Snow, to discuss the impact she hopes to make in her new role on the El Rancho Unified School Board.
Congrats on being elected to the El Rancho Unified School Board! Can you share what your journey was like leading up to your election?
I’ve learned that elections can be really contentious, and the 2020 El Rancho SD election was no different. The community recalled two members about a year ago based on financial corruption concerns. I originally considered running for one of those open seats months ago, but the teachers union endorsed another candidate and asked me to wait to run in November instead. So when it came time to run for the November election, I already had endorsements from three local unions. No one else filed to run against me by the August deadline, so I didn’t have to run – which was a relief! I will be appointed by the school board members on Dec. 1.
I actually ran for this board in 2015 as well. I had recently moved back to my hometown of Pico Rivera from Washington, D.C. a few months before deciding to run. I was 25 and lots of folks thought I was too young. Now I bring more extensive professional experience to the board.
I’ve learned so much during my two campaigns: like how important fundraising is, to raise money not for myself but to make a change. To work with my community and to prioritize building relationships with stakeholders like the teachers union a year or two in advance of my second campaign. I also attended a school board meeting, where I witnessed some of the board members disrespect kids and community members.
Run the best community-driven campaign that’s an authentic representation of who you are, what you value, and the change you’ll create.
I once heard someone say, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” I knew that if I didn’t run, then kids, teachers, and staff in the district would not be served well. I felt a responsibility to help – or to at least try.
What issues inspired you to run?
One of the biggest campaign issues on the ticket in my district this campaign cycle concerned financial transparency. After some lack of transparency that had recently come up on the board, it led to questioning: where is the money going? Who are we giving the contract to and why? So I ran with a commitment to address this issue.
I also wanted to bring awareness to how and why STEM is so important in our schools. When I was in high school in the district, they didn’t offer any technology related opportunities. I’m excited to advocate for more STEM related fields so students can be exposed to fields like coding -- to at least have the chance to decide whether they like it.
Our district has recently lost several community programs, including Generation First, which helped high school students apply for college. We really need more college and career readiness support so I’m excited to work on bringing that back.
What would you consider to be a big immediate win for your district? And what are the more entrenched challenges that may take more time to address?
The first thing I really want to do is build more transparency and community trust - not just financial transparency, but also making it easy to understand what the board is talking about. They tend to use acronyms and legal terminology, and they need to regain the community’s trust by making it possible to understand what’s going on.
I want to approach this challenge like a teacher: at the beginning of a meeting, we’ll let folks know the terms we will be using and what they mean. I am also teaming up with the Superintendent to lead a math lesson on details of the budget that have not been well explained.
I hope to unite the community, teachers, staff, students, and board – I genuinely think if we work together, listen to feedback and allow teachers and staff to take on more leadership roles, that would drastically improve the district.
It’s so important to engage with your community as an elected leader. How do you plan to partner with your constituents? What opportunities do you see in terms of collaborating with the district’s students, families, and educators?
Prior to COVID my plan was to get to know every school through in-person visits. Now with COVID, I have met with all the teacher-staff representatives for each school and am starting those conversations. I’m also intent on ensuring that we translate the district website and all district communications to Spanish.
What other COVID-related changes or needs do you anticipate?
There are so many needs related to technology. I’ve heard of problems with devices where teachers’ and students’ computers aren’t working well. Broadband access is a huge problem, too. I would love to partner with the City Council to expand high-speed WiFi access across the city.
I also want to create more opportunities for students to tell the board about the mental health challenges they face from feeling overwhelmed and isolated. So far the district has surveyed parents on this topic, but not students. I’d like to change that.
What advice do you have for people who were in your position when you first started to consider a run for office?
Go to a school board meeting, or listen in if you can’t go in person. See who’s on the board, and what they’re doing, and how it’s working. Talk to students, teachers, and staff, especially if you live in the district you grew up in; then it’s personal. Then – just go for it!
What do you want your legacy to be for your community?
I’ve seen other low-income districts run successful tech programs, and I want to push for these kinds of programs, resources, and opportunities in El Rancho. I’ll be looking for opportunities to partner with tech organizations and philanthropy to help us provide the best options to help students be all they can be.
*The above interview has been transcribed and is in subjects' own words, with edits for clarity or brevity.
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