By Special to San José Spotlight
Every year, students, teachers, school administrators, as well as local education advocates across our community, fill up a handful of school buses and head to our state’s capitol to share their ideas and concerns about California’s public education system with members of our Legislature.
A tradition hosted by my office for the past two decades, the Sacramento Bus Trip for Education brings community members right to the decision-makers—this year, we carried on our tradition through a completely virtual format!
The 18th annual Sacramento Bus Trip for Education shaped up to be another informative and earnest conversation with “Bus Trip participants” and my colleagues in the Senate and State Assembly: Senators John Laird, Josh Becker, Steve Glazer and Bob Wieckowski, as well as Assemblymembers Ash Kalra and Alex Lee.
There was much to discuss with students returning to their classrooms and schools navigating our educational landscape amid COVID-19 and beyond. Topics brought up during this year’s trip ranged from schools reopening to school-based mental health support systems, closing the digital divide for students, the state’s education budget and more.
The dialogue was led by students of all ages who provided personal testimony that reflected on their educational experience during a time of drastically altered learning conditions.
Recounting her experience, first-generation college student and political science major at San Jose State University Britney Ortiz told legislators, “Like many of my peers, I have had to face barriers throughout my academic journey. I have had to work a job, and sometimes two, throughout my college career in order to support myself, while anxiously striving to attain a 4.0 GPA.”
Ortiz, who joined the bus trip to advocate for adequate funding of our California state universities, said, “I quickly found a community at my campus’ Chicanx/Latinx student success center, where I was provided with so much support from staff who shared my similar background and motivated me to do well in school.”
Recognizing the financial challenges that today’s college students face, especially here in our district, we discussed state efforts underway to ease this economic burden.
Kalra spoke on AB 1456, the Cal Grant Reform Act, that would improve accessibility to the Cal Grant program and ensure it can cover non-tuition costs such as basic needs and living expenses. Glazer touched on his bill, SB 785, that would expand student participation in the “California Promise Program” at CSUs that develops pathways to a more affordable college experience for students from first-generation, low-income or underrepresented backgrounds.
But there is so much more work to be done these next few years as we exit a time of sweeping economic instability brought on by COVID-19.
By the same token, we’ve also seen a rise in levels of stress, depression and anxiety for our students as a result of the pandemic.
Steven Luo, a junior at Evergreen Valley High School, spoke on the importance of accessibility in mental health services to support the behavioral well-being of every student and the fight for eliminating the stigma around accessing support. He cited that nearly 50% of mental health issues are established by the age of 14 and 75% by the age of 24, with 79% of youth and young adults experiencing mental health struggles not accessing care.
Responding to student mental health impacts is a priority for the state Legislature, with many looking to the model we championed here in our county: School-linked services. By connecting students and families to county mental health counseling and case management right at their school campuses, partnerships between counties and local school systems like school-linked services can help reach those students that are not yet able to access existing services.
With this concept in mind, the Legislature’s version of the 2021-22 state budget includes an augmentation of $200 million for Mental Health Student Services Act programs to provide grants for school and county mental health partnerships.
Our youngest bus trip participant was Erin, a brilliant fourth grade student attending Ben Painter Elementary School.
“The need for upgrading laptops and use of technology is a must and would be awesome if it happened,” Erin said. “Students with advanced working technology would get higher grades than students without advanced technology.”
As Erin fittingly pointed out, the pandemic has made clear that many students and families are being left behind due to the significant digital divide in our community. Lack of digital access and broadband infrastructure inequity is an overarching issue that the state is committed to addressing for the long term.
We have learned from this pandemic that there is a poverty and racial divide that is very real across our state, and has led to social, psychological, health and academic impacts on our students.
Equity was a common theme raised throughout the bus trip, for participants and legislators alike, and is a lens through which many legislators are viewing all policy and budget decision-making, myself included.
We were able to cover even more wide-ranging topics during this year’s virtual bus trip. For those of you who would like to view a full recording of the discussion, visit the video gallery posted on my website: https://sd15.senate.ca.gov.
I am eagerly anticipating next year’s bus trip and the opportunity to bring this tradition back to our state capitol building.
Senator Dave Cortese represents District 15 which encompasses much of Santa Clara County in the heart of Silicon Valley. Along with his accomplished career as an attorney and business owner, Cortese previously served on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, the San Jose City Council and the East Side Union High School District Board.
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This article was originally published by The San José Spotlight.