Tristan Hernandez, 20, was appointed to a seat on the Canutillo school board. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Tristan Hernandez last attended a Canutillo school board meeting as a high school senior in 2018 to accept a college scholarship from the district’s alumni group. On Tuesday, the 20-year-old University of Texas at El Paso student sat through a five-hour board meeting as a trustee.

Canutillo trustees appointed Hernandez last week to fill the vacancy left by Mary Yglesias’ Oct. 20 resignation for health reasons. He will serve the remaining two years of her term, which ends November 2022.

Hernandez saw the news about the board vacancy on Facebook and applied for the position. He was one of five applicants, Board President Sergio Coronado said.

Few young people serve on their local school board, either in an appointed or elected capacity. Nationally, the median age of school board members is 59, according to a 2018 National School Boards Association survey.

El Paso districts aren’t too far off from that. The median age of Canutillo’s board is 61. The El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees also has a median age of 61, the Ysleta ISD board’s median age is 62 and the Socorro ISD board’s is 53. At age 31, EPISD Trustee Josh Acevedo is the next youngest school board member among these four districts.

Canutillo is the only El Paso district to have a board member from Generation Z  — those the Pew Research Center defines as being born after 1996.

Hernandez, who is studying electrical engineering, said he saw the vacancy as an opportunity to serve his community. He said he hasn’t considered whether he’ll run for election in 2022.

“I can help bring the student perspective to the board,” he said. “When a lot of the times students may be either intimidated or nervous to go up and speak (at a meeting), I hope that I can provide a friendly face and really inspire them.”

Tristan Hernandez, 20, was appointed to the Canutillo school board.(Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

That perspective is needed on school boards, said Trustee Armando Rodriguez. Now 37, Rodriguez was first elected in 2005 at age 21 while still a UTEP student, making him the youngest elected trustee in district history. Voters re-elected him to a fifth four-year term last month.

“I think having diverse perspectives allows for an organization to grow in a better way than having the same type of perspectives from all seven (trustees),” Rodriguez said.

Recent high school or college graduates have a better understanding of the K-12 education system and the higher education pipeline, he said. As a result, younger trustees often have “higher expectations and that will turn into accountability and a goal-setting that will lead to better opportunities for many of our kids,” he said.

Diversity of opinion comes not just from age, but also gender and occupation, Rodriguez said, pointing to the fact that none of the other trustees has an engineering background.

Hernandez said he isn’t intimidated by working with older trustees, three of whom — Rodriguez, Coronado and Laure Searls — have served for more than a decade. Though school board politics can be intense at times, Hernandez said his immediate focus is on “making myself knowledgeable in the topics that are being addressed and that are being raised. That way I’m not just there following around everyone, I can have my opinion.”

The El Paso, Socorro and Ysleta districts have school board elections this May. In Texas, school board members must be at least 18 years old on the first day of their elected term or at the time of their appointment.

Rodriguez would like to see more young people serve on school boards. “Each board should at least have one young board member,” he said. “It would be nice to have it as the standard.”

Cover photo: Tristan Hernandez, a 2018 graduate of Canutillo High School, is the youngest person to be appointed to the Canutillo school board. Hernandez, now an electrical engineering student at UTEP, believes that his very recent experience as a CISD student will benefit the board. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.